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NC court rules state legislature maps unconstitutional, Duke prof. weighs in

In a unanimous state court ruling, a three-judge panel in a Wake County court struck down North Carolina's state legislative maps as unconstitutional.

Jonathan Mattingly, chair of the department of mathematics, served as an expert witness for the plaintiffs and testified in open court in July. Speaking to The Chronicle Tuesday night, Mattingly welcomed the three-judge panel’s decision but cautioned that much of its impact rests upon the General Assembly's willingness to follow the ruling's push toward transparency.

"I hope that the legislature respects the spirit of what was told to them, that this should be an open process," Mattingly said. "The best disinfectant is sunshine, letting people see what's going on."

Announced Sept. 3, the panel held North Carolina's state legislative maps to violate the North Carolina constitution, specifically the Free Elections Clause, the Equal Protection Clause, the Freedom of Speech and Assembly Clauses. The challenged maps were redrawn in 2017 by the North Carolina General Assembly, with both chambers held by Republicans.

The court also ordered the North Carolina legislature to redraw the maps by Sept. 18. The new maps must use a set of seven standards set by the court. The court order prohibits the General Assembly from using election data, and the new districts must also be drawn publicly.

At Duke, Mattingly's team developed computational methods to show when a district map favors one party over the other. By generating tens of thousands of potential maps to meet districting criteria, Mattingly and his team demonstrated the low chance of North Carolina's maps being randomly drawn.

Mattingly expressed optimism that the ban on election data would cut back on partisan gerrymandering. By cutting back on precise data, lawmakers will have a harder time making the subtle adjustments that underlie gerrymandering.

"It's very fine scale structure of where people live that will let you do this," Mattingly said.

Mattingly's research has previously been heard in front of the Supreme Court of the United States during oral arguments in Rucho v. Common Cause. In that case, the Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that partisan gerrymandering cases cannot be decided in federal court.

The plaintiffs were also supported by statewide political figures past and present. In August, four former North Carolina governors—one Republican and three Democrats—filed a brief in Common Cause v. Lewis urging the court to reject the maps as unconstitutional.

Unlike the Supreme Court, the North Carolina state court assumed the responsibility to rule on partisan gerrymandering under the North Carolina Constitution.

This ruling is North Carolina’s first partisan gerrymandering decision since the Supreme Court's June decision.

Republican Phil Berger, president pro tempore of the North Carolina Senate, issued a statement shared on Twitter that although he disagrees with the court’s ruling, it is not likely that the decision will be appealed to the N.C. state Supreme Court.

"To end this matter once and for all, we will follow the court's instruction and move forward with adoption of a nonpartisan map," Berger wrote in the statement.

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