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- The case was heard by a panel of three judges in Wake County Superior Court, not the state Court of Appeals.
- While the judges acknowledged the maps are "extreme outliers" that favor Republicans, Butler exaggerated their comments.
- Butler's tweet gave the impression the judges are from the same party. They aren't.
A Democratic state legislator in North Carolina used social media to try to summarize a recent legal challenge to the state’s election maps.
State Sen. Deb Butler of New Hanover County serves as the Democratic House whip. She has 20,000 followers on Twitter. On Jan. 12, she tweeted:
"So the NC appeals court said… and I paraphrase, yeah, it is despicable, the maps are skewed, citizens will be deprived of their vote, we agree with the experts, democracy hangs in the balance, yada yada, but you know, we are partisan hacks so we gonna live with it."
Is that an accurate description of what happened in court?
Not exactly. Let’s go through the tweet.
In North Carolina, the legislature draws the state’s election maps. Voting rights groups recently sued state lawmakers, saying the GOP majority drew the state’s new maps to give Republicans an advantage in an inordinate number of Congressional and legislative districts.
The case was heard by a panel of judges in Wake County Superior Court, not the state Court of Appeals. The plaintiffs’ requests for relief were denied in a unanimous decision. The case is being appealed and is scheduled to be heard by the state Supreme Court on Feb. 2. Butler did not say why she called it an appeals court.
"I believe, and I do not think there can be any argument, that free and fair elections are fundamental to the continued existence of our democracy," Butler wrote in an email to PolitiFact NC. "Given the findings that were made by the appellate court, I cannot fathom their decision."
Butler said the judges are "partisan hacks." The opinion of whether they are "hacks" isn’t suited for the Truth-O-Meter, but we can clarify some things about judges’ political affiliations and the manner of the court.
Judges in North Carolina are elected. Each judicial candidate’s political party affiliation is listed on the ballot when they run for office. The races were nonpartisan from 2004 until about five years ago. GOP legislators restored partisan affiliations on the ballot for state Court of Appeals and Supreme Court candidates in 2016, and then for lower courts beginning in 2018.
In her email to PolitiFact NC, Butler said her use of the word "partisan" referred to that change in the law and how judges now carry political party labels.
"Regrettably, the NC Republican majority passed legislation restoring partisan labels on members of the judiciary and to me, this decision reflects their re-election fears rather than a fair, just and impartial review."
Some Twitter users took Butler’s tweet to mean she believes the judges were all from the same party or ideology. That’s not the case.
In the redistricting case, the three-judge panel included two Republicans and one Democrat. Judges Graham Shirley and Nathaniel Poovey are Republicans. Judge Dawn Layton was appointed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper in 2019. Layton is a registered Democrat who ran for her judicial seat as a Democrat in the 2020 election.
Layton, Shirley and Poovey ruled unanimously on the case.
In a Richmond Observer story about Layton’s appointment, colleagues and adversaries described her as someone who is fair. Shirley, for his part, hasn’t always ruled with Republicans. In 2017, he allowed the Watauga County Board of Elections to set up an early voting site on Appalachian State University’s campus — at the objection of the board’s Republican chairman and the local GOP’s vice chairman. The Watauga Democrat newspaper wrote about the case.
Butler’s paraphrasing of the judges’ views on the GOP-drawn maps isn’t far off-base.
The judges did state as fact in their ruling that "the Congressional map is the product of intentional, pro-Republican partisan redistricting" while calling the state House and Senate plans "extreme outliers." They echoed the comments of Duke University statistician Jonathan Mattingly, writing on page 54 of the opinion that the legislative districts "systematically favor the Republican Party to an extent which is rarely, if ever, seen in the non-partisan collection of maps."
While the judges didn’t call the maps despicable, they did on page 246 express "disdain for having to deal with issues that potentially lead to results incompatible with democratic principles and subject our State to ridicule."
The judges did allow the maps to remain law. Butler’s tweet gave people the impression she was referring to the judges having a common political ideology, which is not reflected in their party affiliations. Her email suggests they ruled the way they did because they’re worried about re-election.
In their opinion, the judges offered a legal reasoning for their ruling. The state constitution gives the legislators the power to draw election maps. Judges wrote that the maps are "the result of a democratic process" and that the free elections clause of the state constitution "does not operate as a restraint on the General Assembly’s ability to redistrict for partisan advantage."
Butler said the "NC appeals court" confirmed the state’s election maps "are skewed" but didn’t block them because they are "partisan hacks."
Butler, who acknowledged she was paraphrasing, generally captured the judges’ views on the election maps. Judges expressed "disdain" for having to deal with election maps that they acknowledged are "extreme outliers" that benefit Republicans.
However, she got a basic fact wrong. The case was heard in superior court — not the state Court of Appeals. And there’s no apparent evidence that the judges ruled the way they did because of their partisan affiliation. She failed to capture the judges’ reasoning for their vote. And she gave some people the impression that the judges are affiliated with the same party, which isn’t the case.
The tweet contains an element of truth: Superior court judges acknowledged the maps are skewed. However, it ignores critical facts about the judges and ruling that would give readers a different impression. That’s our definition of Mostly False.
Tweet by North Carolina state Rep. Deb Butler on Jan. 12.
Email exchange with North Carolina state Rep. Deb Butler.
Stories by WRAL, "Voting maps favorable to NC Republicans allowed to move forward, judges rule," posted Jan. 11, 2022; "NC courts face perception of partisanship," posted Dec. 9, 2021.
Press release issued by Gov. Roy Cooper on Aug. 7, 2019.
Story by the Richmond Observer, "Layton described as 'fair,' promises to 'do the right thing' as superior court judge," posted Aug. 28, 2019.
Story by the Watauga Democrat, "Wake judge rules in favor of ASU early-voting site," posted Oct. 12, 2017.
Final judgment of Wake County Superior Court case, N.C. League of Conservation Voters v. N.C. State Representative Destin Hall, issued Jan. 11, 2022.
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