A panel of three federal judges has ruled that the North Carolina General Assembly must use the map of the state’s legislative districts drawn by a Stanford University law professor in this year’s elections.

In 2016, the same three judges -- Catherine Eagles and Thomas Schroeder of the U.S. Middle District of North Carolina and James Wynn of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals -- ruled that 28 of the state’s legislative districts were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. The state’s Republican lawmakers appealed that decision to the United States Supreme Court, which affirmed the panel’s ruling in June.

The legislature was given an opportunity to redraw the maps last year and hired the same man who put together the original maps, which have been used to elect the General Assembly on three occasions, to fix his mistakes. The new maps adopted by the legislature altered a number of districts throughout the state -- including Senate District 44, which includes Lincoln County -- but, in November, the judges ruled once again that the districts were drawn in a way to reduce the influence of black voters.

The panel of judges then appointed Nathaniel Persily, the James B. McClatchy Professor of Law at Stanford Law School, to take a stab at redistricting the state. Persily has been assigned to help redraw maps in New York, Maryland, Georgia and Connecticut in similar court-ordered processes.

Persily revealed his maps earlier this month, fixing nine districts adopted by the lawmakers back in August. The altered districts include Senate districts in Cumberland, Guilford and Hoke counties, as well as House districts in Bladen, Guilford, Mecklenburg, Sampson, Wake and Wayne counties. The rest of the state’s legislative districts will remain as drawn by the legislature, meaning that Senate District 44 now includes the entirety of Lincoln County and Cleveland County, as well as a small portion of Gaston County.

Friday’s ruling from the panel of federal judges comes less than one month prior to the beginning of the filing period for candidates seeking state office in 2018, which starts on Feb. 12.  Republican lawmakers, however, have vowed to appeal the ruling back to the Supreme Court, despite the time crunch that could leave the state’s legislative districts in limbo when the filing period opens.

“Based on some of the talk and analysis that I’ve seen and heard among legislators and folks in the legal world, there are parts of (Persily’s) maps that are problematic,” Lincoln County state Rep. Jason Saine, a Lincolnton Republican, told the Times-News earlier this month. “That probably would lend to a challenge straight up to the Supreme Court … The impact here is that we could end up with folks gearing up to run for office, but because of a court that wants to dabble in what is in my opinion judicial overreach, puts things in limbo as folks decide whether or not to run based on what the district looks like. If my district were 75 percent urban Democrats I would probably wouldn’t run because there’s no way that my values would match up with that district. The shift of a couple of precincts can really change a district vastly.”

North Carolina’s election districts took another hit last week when a different panel of three federal judges ruled the state’s 13 congressional districts unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders and ordered lawmakers to draw new maps by the end of this week. The United States Supreme Court intervened Thursday evening, however, ruling that the state did not have to present new maps while they plan their appeal to the Supreme Court in that case.

At the moment, it’s unclear whether these issues will be resolved in time for the filing period that begins exactly three weeks from today.

Saine and state Sen. David Curtis, a Denver Republican whose district includes Lincoln County, both plan to run for reelection this year and each legislator will likely face Republican challengers in the primary election scheduled for May. Lincoln County Commissioner Martin Oakes and former Shelby Mayor Ted Alexander have announced their intent to challenge for the seat currently occupied by Curtis, while Nic Haag -- who lost the election to Curtis as a Libertarian candidate in 2016 -- plans to campaign against Saine for the Republican nomination to represent Lincoln County in the state House of Representatives.

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