Following the 2020 census, there was a drawn-out battle over whether election maps created by the N.C. legislature’s GOP leadership were legal and fair. The Democrat-majority state Supreme Court decided that they weren’t and imposed new maps drawn by “special masters.” But now a new battle is unfolding over whether the fees for this work should be charged to the taxpayers or some other source.
A document filed in Superior Court lays out fees submitted by the special masters and their assistants. It shows $195,138.39 for eight days of work.
The vast majority of these expenses were hourly fees charged by the three special masters — former N.C. Supreme Court Justices Bob Orr and Bob Edmunds and former University of North Carolina System President Tom Ross — and their assistants.
The three masters charged $690 an hour, and the assistants were mostly assigned $450 an hour. Orr charged nearly $30,000 for his 43 hours of work, Edmunds $43,000 for 62 hours of work, and Ross $41,000 for 60 hours of work.
In the itemized expense list, many tasks were not described in detail. For example, one item on Ross’ list was two hours for “dinner conversation with Justices Orr and Edmunds.” At $690 an hour per master, this one conversation cost $4,140, not including the $174.48 Bonefish Grill tab, which was also listed as an expense.
On May 12, the court asked those involved in the case to submit comments “as to the allocation of the costs and expenses” within 30 days.
Plaintiffs Common Cause and the N.C. League of Conservation Voters filed comments saying that “Plaintiffs in this case prevailed, and it was the unconstitutional conduct of Legislative Defendants, not Plaintiffs, which necessitated the Special Masters’ work in this matter. Legislative Defendants should pay the entirety of the Special Masters’ costs.”
The left-leaning voting groups said that in similar past cases, courts accepted the same arrangement for paying fees.
But leaders at the N.C. legislature are crying foul, saying that the fees are exorbitant and taxpayers shouldn’t be expected to foot the bill.
“It is outrageous that these well-heeled experts are exploiting their positions by charging our taxpayers an exorbitant hourly rate and asking them to pick up their restaurant tab,” N.C. Senate Redistricting Committee Chairman Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, said in a June 20 press release from Senate leadership. “They’re treating taxpayers like their personal piggy bank, and the plaintiffs’ attorneys are playing along.”
In their own comments to the court on the fees, General Assembly leaders — through attorney Phillip Strach — said the invoices in general seem to be “either excessively vague or otherwise inappropriate.”
Strach also called for any decision regarding the fees to be delayed until all appeals had been heard in the case.
Strach filed a motion with the N.C. Supreme Court to extend briefing deadlines by a month. The court granted Strach’s request without comment.
Different views about paying fees for special masters was a key reason for requesting the delay.
“[O]n 13 June 2022, the parties filed comments in response to the Trial Court’s Notice of Intent to Assess Fees and Costs of the Special Masters,” Strach wrote. “Given that the Trial Court did not provide an opportunity for response, it is likely that the Court will issue an order of some sort in the next month.”
“Plaintiffs and Defendants have extremely different positions on the matter of fees, including the Trial Court’s jurisdiction to hear such an issue; therefore, it is also likely one or both parties could file an appeal from any order issued by the Trial Court,” Strach added.
With a 30-day briefing extension, all parties could address fees along with other disputed issues, Strach explained. “Judicial economy supports such an extension so that this Court can fully hear all issues surrounding the appeal, and not be forced to hear the issue of fees separately.”
Strach also reminded the Supreme Court that the printed record in the redistricting battle is “voluminous,” with more than 15,000 pages of documents.
“As the election districts are set for the 2022 election, and primaries have already been conducted, there is no need for an expedited review of this matter,” he wrote.
The first briefs had been due at the Supreme Court on June 27. In allowing Strach’s motion, the court extended the deadline to July 25. Other deadlines also will be pushed back by 30 days.
The special masters accepted N.C. legislators’ court-ordered remedial maps for state House and Senate elections. But the special masters rejected lawmakers’ remedial congressional election map. The special masters substituted their own congressional plan. That plan for North Carolina’s 14 congressional districts is scheduled to be used for the 2022 election alone.
Republican legislators complained about the special masters’ interference in the congressional map. They said the special masters rejected a map that would have produced some of the nation’s most competitive congressional elections. Instead, the special masters’ substitute map virtually guaranteed the election of seven Republicans and six Democrats to Congress, with just one true toss-up district, according to GOP complaints.
The special masters’ work generated another controversy. In February, Republican legislative leaders asked judges to remove Sam Wang of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project as an adviser to the special masters. Wang had been accused of violating a court order limiting contact between the special masters’ team and redistricting experts working for the parties in the case. Courts dismissed GOP complaints and allowed Wang to continue working with the special masters.
An April news report revealed that Wang was under investigation in New Jersey. In that state’s redistricting dispute, Wang faced accusations that he manipulated data to match his personal agenda.