By Anne Blythe

North Carolina will not have special elections in 2017 in new state legislative districts, but three federal judges ordered lawmakers to draw boundaries to correct what they have ruled to be unconstitutional racial gerrymanders by Sept. 1.

The ruling was issued late Monday.

At a hearing in Greensboro last week, attorneys for legislative leaders asked the judges to give lawmakers until Nov. 15 to approve new maps. U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles, an Obama appointee in the U.S. Middle District of North Carolina, and Judge James Wynn, an Obama appointee on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, raised concerns at the three-hour hearing at the lawmakers' delay in producing new maps.

"You don't seem serious," Eagles said at the hearing in the federal courthouse.

The three-judge panel of Eagles, Wynn and Thomas Schroeder, a George W. Bush appointee in the U.S. Middle District, agreed with the challengers of the legislative districts who sought a quicker remedy to the unconstitutional districts.

"We agree with Plaintiffs that the General Assembly already has had ample time to enact a remedial redistricting plan," the judges said in their unanimous ruling. "We also agree that constitutionally adequate districts should be enacted as quickly as possible to protect the rights of North Carolina citizens and to minimize any chilling effect on political participation attributable to the continued absence of a districting plan in the face of a finding of unconstitutional racial gerrymandering."

It was a year ago in August, when the judges ruled against the lawmakers, finding that 28 of the 170 districts used to elect North Carolina's General Assembly members were drawn to weaken the influence of black voters across the state. Then, in November, after the lawmakers had not taken any action to correct the unconstitutional districts, the three-judge panel ordered new maps to be drawn and special elections held in any changed districts by March of 2017.

The lawmakers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which put a halt to the previously ordered 2017 elections. In June, the justices unanimously affirmed the three-judge panel's finding that lawmakers had packed too many African-Americans into 28 districts.

In the schedule included in the court order issued Monday, the federal judges told lawmakers that within a week of enacting new district plans they must share the maps with the court and include any accompanying transcripts and documents. The challengers then will have until Sept. 15 to file any objections to the new plans and submit any alternates.

"The court's decision affirms the urgency with which we must address this wrong committed against North Carolina voters," Allison Riggs, senior attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said in a statement. "Despite operating as an unconstitutional body, the General Assembly tried to delay redrawing of maps until November 15. This prompt redrawing will allow North Carolinians to at least rest assured, knowing which districts they will be living in come the November 2018 elections, and that the federal court will be reviewing the remedial plans closely to ensure they are legal."

Attempts to reach Republican legislative leaders were not immediately successful.

Though Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, counsel for the challengers, asked the judges last week to order elections in March 2018 in any changed districts, Phil Strach, the Raleigh attorney representing legislative leaders, argued that such a schedule would be a burden and confuse voters.

At the same hearing, Democrats said the absence of corrective maps had made it difficult to recruit potential candidates for the 2018 elections and to begin fundraising.

Republicans dominate both chambers of the General Assembly, holding 74 of the 120 House seats and 35 of the 50 Senate seats. Their numbers allow them to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's vetoes.

Republican legislative leaders have tapped Thomas Hofeller, a veteran mapmaker for the party, to help with the redrawing of districts. Hofeller was behind the 2011 maps, which are at the root of the court case.

On Friday, a legislative redistricting hearing is scheduled to meet for a second session. The first session was last Wednesday, the day before the federal court hearing,

(c)2017 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)