Fact Check: Only a ‘morsel of truth’ to NC lawmaker’s tweet about redistricting ruling
In this week’s fact check of North Carolina politics, we’re looking at a tweet earlier this month from Democratic state Rep. Deb Butler of New Hanover County.
Butler criticized a recent ruling in a legal challenge to the state’s new elections maps. She wrote the court essentially said, “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.”
Paul Specht of WRAL helps us break all of that down.
Marshall Terry: Before we get to the tweet, Paul, can you give us a really quick recap of the legal challenge to the maps and the court ruling and what comes next?
Paul Specht: Yes. In North Carolina, state legislators draw the maps every 10 years. They draw the state House, the state Senate and then the congressional maps. And this year they did that after the census data came out, and they were promptly sued by voting rights groups who said that the maps were unfair and cemented Republican control for years to come based on the demographics that they see on the maps.
That case was heard in Wake County Superior Court by three judges – a panel of three judges. They ruled against the plaintiffs, saying that the state legislators had the power to draw the maps the way they did because they're given that power through the state Constitution. That ruling by that panel of three judges in Wake County Superior Court was then appealed. And up next, this case is going to go to the state Supreme Court, where there is a 4-3 advantage for Democrats.
Terry: OK, so let's go back to the tweet now from Rep. Deb Butler, who wrote that in the court's ruling, it said "t's despicable, the maps are skewed, citizens will be deprived of their votes, we agree with the experts, democracy hangs in the balance." Now, Butler did say she was paraphrasing there. Is that an accurate description of what the court said in its ruling?
Specht: Right — she said she was paraphrasing, but she still goes too far in her description of what happened. She's sort of overdramatizing what the judges actually said. Now, the one part of her tweet there that gets her some credit, if you will, is that the judges said the maps are skewed. They did acknowledge that. They said in their ruling, "The congressional map is a product of intentional pro-Republican partisan redistricting." And they went on to say that the state House and Senate plans are "extreme outliers."
So, you have it on paper. We all have it on paper from the judges. They are acknowledging that the maps are skewed, so she has a point there. But they did not say democracy hangs in the balance, and they didn't go as far in their rebuke as Butler suggested. Her characterization of their reasoning is also misleading because she attributes it to them being partisan hacks, when really these judges ruled unanimously that the state Constitution gives legislators the power to draw election maps.
People can go look this up in our state Constitution. It's online. Just Google it, and you'll see: It gives lawmakers this power to draw their own maps. And this panel of judges did not see anything to send those lawmakers back to the drawing board.
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. #ncpol— Deb Butler (@DebButlerHD18) January 13, 2022
Terry: And I want to bring out the part where Butler called the judges partisan hacks. Now, I guess whether the judges are hacks is a matter of opinion, but judges are elected in partisan races in North Carolina, right?
Specht: That's correct. She can say that they're hacks all she wants. We did not rate her statement on that particular word because that's an opinion, and we don't really rate opinions. But we did look at her use of the word "partisan," and when we reached out to her about it, we asked, "What do you mean that these three judges were partisan?" And she said that years ago, they used to not be partisan — that judges would run for office and their political party was not on the ballot at all.
That changed in recent years when they were made partisan again. And so since then, now when you go to vote for judge, you'll see the little "D" or the little "R" next to their name. And so she said she referred to them as partisan because they're worried about their reelection chances and now people know what their partisan affiliation is.
Certainly, she's — like, I said — entitled to her opinion. But when we looked at her tweet and you look at some of the reactions to it, people were left with the impression that she was suggesting that each of the three judges were from the same party, and that isn't true. Two of the judges are Republican, but one is a Democrat, who is appointed by (Gov.) Roy Cooper, also a Democrat. And so that part of the tweet definitely gave people the wrong impression about who the judges are and why they ruled the way they did.
Terry: So, how did you rate this tweet by state Rep. Deb Butler?
Specht: On the whole, we rated it mostly false. And here's why: She gets off to a bad start by saying that the ruling was in the North Carolina appeals court, if you go back and look at her tweet. She even repeated it in an email to us. And that's not accurate. The case was heard and Wake County Superior Court. It's a small thing, but it is inaccurate and needs to be corrected.
The morsel of truth here is that the judges did acknowledge the maps are skewed, but then she overdramatizes what they said. She exaggerates the extent of their distaste and goes on to refer to the judges as "partisan hacks." Again, we didn't rule on the "hacks," but that "partisan" part was misleading, too. It gives people the impression that the reason for the ruling had something to do with elections or with their political party or with the judges all being aligned with some sort of ideology, and that's not the case.
They ruled unanimously that the lawmakers had the legal authority to draw the maps the way they did. She may not agree with that, but that's the legal reasoning behind their ruling. And so, when we take all of this into consideration, that's why her tweet comes out with a mostly false (rating).
Terry: All right, Paul, thank you.