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North Carolina judges throw out current congressional map

RALEIGH — North Carolina judges on Monday blocked the state’s congressional map from being used in the 2020 elections, ruling that voters had a strong likelihood of winning a lawsuit that argued Republicans unlawfully manipulated district lines for partisan gain.

The panel of three Superior Court judges issued a preliminary injunction preventing elections under the district lines, starting with the March 3 primary.

The judges halted the use of these districts less than two months after they struck down state House and Senate districts. There they found extreme political manipulation of the lines similar to what voters suing over the congressional map also say occurred.

In the ruling Monday, the judges — Paul Ridgeway, Alma Hinton and Joseph Crosswhite — agreed that “there is a substantial likelihood that plaintiffs will prevail on the merits of this action by showing beyond a reasonable doubt that the 2016 congressional districts are extreme partisan gerrymanders” in violation of the North Carolina Constitution.

The judges gave no date by which a new map must be drawn, but suggested lawmakers could redraw them on their own quickly to ensure congressional primaries be held as scheduled. The State Board of Elections has said lines needed to be finalized by Dec. 15.

“The court respectfully urges the General Assembly to adopt an expeditious process,” the judges wrote.

Republican state legislators made plain when they drew that map that the lines were designed to help the GOP retain 10 of the state’s 13 congressional seats, but argued such strategies weren’t unlawful. Republican defendants in the lawsuit and three sitting GOP U.S. House members opposed the injunction request.

The judges’ ruling, which could be appealed, would likely lead to a map with more competitive districts for the November race — making it more difficult for national Republicans to retake control of the U.S. House. The lawsuit is being bankrolled by a national Democratic group led by former Attorney General Eric Holder.

Democratic and unaffiliated voters who sued Sept. 27 sought the injunction before any trial is held on their partisan gerrymandering claims. They said the case was extremely similar to a successful lawsuit over state legislative districts.

“For nearly a decade, Republicans have forced the people of North Carolina to vote in districts that were manipulated for their own partisan advantage,” Holder said in a news release. “Now — finally — the era of Republican gerrymandering in the state is coming to an end.”

Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican, said he wasn’t surprised by the congressional ruling given the recent decision involving the legislative districts, calling it judicial activism and a “flawed approach to redistricting law.” Berger said he expected the legislature would likely redraw the map, but no decision has been made.

The same three judges hearing the congressional case ruled in that case just two months ago, finding Republicans performed extreme political manipulation in those maps to ensure they could hold majorities in almost any political environment. Republicans were ordered to redraw those lines. Also Monday, the judges issued a separate ruling in the legislative case, upholding all of the changes that the General Assembly made to several dozen state House and Senate districts. The plaintiffs who sued there had wanted a third-party expert to step in and rework 19 House districts.

In the current congressional lawsuit, the plaintiffs’ attorneys convinced the judges that evidence already accumulated from separate federal litigation challenging the congressional lines shows they are likely to succeed in the state case.

The federal case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided 5-4 in June that federal courts would not get involved in partisan redistricting claims. But the justices left the door open for state courts to intervene.

Opponents of the current congressional map have latched on to the comment made by state Rep. David Lewis during the 2016 remapping. Lewis said at the time he was proposing a 10-3 map “because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.” Lewis said later he was joking.

Attorneys for Lewis and other Republican lawmakers who are defendants in the state congressional lawsuit case reject the plaintiffs’ partisan gerrymandering claims. They told the judges it was too late to make congressional map changes, since candidate filing begins in early December and that facts in the case were not settled. Changes now, the GOP’s lawyers said, would result in voter confusion and extremely low turnout should the primary have to be delayed.

Police investigate two shootings and arrest two men in stabbing death; all three incidents happened early Monday morning

Winston-Salem police have arrested two men in connection with a stabbing death and are investigating two shootings that left two other men wounded. All three incidents happened early Monday.

Police Capt. Steven Tollie said that none of Monday’s incidents were related.

Officers were called to an apartment in the 1000 block of Academy Street about 3 a.m. Monday and found Marcus Warren Smith, 26, who had been stabbed several times.

Smith died at the scene, police said.

Callers told police dispatchers that they heard sounds of a struggle or an assault coming from the apartment, police said.

Smith lived at the apartment with two other men, Jesse Jesus Sanchez, 20, and Brandon Michael Bussey, 20, police said. Sanchez and Bussey have been charged with murder and are being held at the Forsyth County Jail with no bond allowed, police said.

Smith’s death is the city’s 21st homicide this year, the same number there were at this time last year, police said.

Police are also investigating a nearby shooting on Mulberry Street near its intersection with West Academy Street and a shooting about three hours earlier in the 900 block of East 17th Street.

Eric Scott Coble, 43, of Joyner Manor Drive in Germanton was found lying on his side in the 600 block of Mulberry Street around 3:30 a.m. Monday, police said.

Investigators say Coble was shot outside of a home and that the suspect or suspects left the scene. The shooting appears to have been an isolated incident, police said.

Coble was in critical condition Monday night at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, a hospital spokesman said.

An off-duty police officer who was working security at Piedmont International University heard the gunfire and went to the scene, said Marc Cutrell, PIU’s dean of student development.

Immediately after the shooting, PIU sent out an alert via email and text to its students, faculty and staff members, and the university officials locked down their campus for 1½ hours, Cutrell said.

PIU’s email said: “A drive-by shooting occurred ... across from our athletic office located at 705 W. Academy St. PIU was not targeted nor involved in this incident.

“We have safety plans in place to deal with emergency situations, which were followed perfectly,” the email said. “... An RA (resident assistant) heard the shots and quickly called the local police ... and the campus security officer, (who is) a Winston-Salem police officer, responded immediately, securing the crime scene.

“... This allowed us to provide staff, faculty and students with several types of alerts and information, keeping everyone informed,” the email said. “All safety protocols were followed, reducing the impact on our campus.”

A neighbor who lives near the scene said she heard eight gunshots. She then saw an SUV with two of its doors open and the victim lying on the sidewalk, said the neighbor who declined to give her name because the shooting suspect remains at large.

The neighbor said she is accustomed to urban crime, having lived previously in New York City and Dallas, but she has never heard gunfire so close to where she lives.

“For it to be that close, it’s kind of concerning,” the neighbor said.

Robert Parks and Jeffrey Nolen, PIU sophomores from Birmingham, Ala., said they were asleep when the university emailed them alerts about the shooting. Parks and Nolen are members of the PIU’s men’s basketball team.

“I am praying for the families of both victims,” Parks said.

Nolen said he saw many police cars nearby when he arrived on campus at 6 a.m. Monday.

“I hope those issues got resolved, and no else gets hurt,” Nolen said of the shooting on Mulberry Street and the stabbing on West Academy Street.

In another incident, officers also responded to the areas of 900 E. 17th Street at 12:35 Monday on a report of discharging firearms and of someone being shot, police said. Officers then found Anthony Denard Speas Jr., 24, of University Parkway suffering from a single gunshot wound in his lower body.

After Speas spoke to officers, he was taken to Wake Forest Baptist for treatment of non-life-threatening injuries, police said.

Speas was in stable condition Monday night at Wake Forest Baptist, a hospital spokesman said.

Investigators spoke with neighbors about the shooting, but no suspects have been arrested, police said.

The shootings and stabbing death Monday follow a non-fatal shooting on Friday and the Oct. 17 shooting death of a 17-year-old.

In Friday’s incident, police are looking for a suspect in connection with a man who was wounded by gunfire in the 300 block of Gregory Street in the city’s West Salem area.

Officers arrived at the scene at 4:33 p.m. and found Kenneth Nathaniel Foster, 34, with gunshot wounds outside an apartment complex, police said.

Foster had been arguing with the suspect in the case, police said. The argument ended, but the suspect returned to the area and shot Foster, police said.

It was an isolated incident, police said.

In the Oct. 17 case, Jumil Dewann Robertson, 17, a student at Glenn, was found lying on the side of the road in the 1700 block of Argonne Boulevard, suffering from a gunshot wound. Authorities pronounced him dead on the scene.

Winston-Salem police have charged four people with murder and other offenses in connection with Robertson’s death.

Anyone with information involving these shootings can call Winston-Salem police at 339-773-7700, Crime Stoppers at 336-727-2800 or its Spanish line at 336-728-3904. Crime Stoppers of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County is also on Facebook.

House Democrats plan 1st formal vote on impeachment inquiry

WASHINGTON — A military officer at the National Security Council twice raised concerns over the Trump administration’s push to have Ukraine investigate Democrats and Joe Biden, according to testimony the official is prepared to deliver Tuesday in the House impeachment inquiry.

Alexander Vindman, an Army lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq and, later, as a diplomat, is prepared to tell House investigators that he listened to President Donald Trump’s call with new Ukraine President Volodymr Zelenskiy and reported his concerns to the NSC’s lead counsel.

“I was concerned by the call,” Vindman will say, according to prepared testimony obtained Monday night by The Associated Press. “I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen, and I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government’s support of Ukraine.”

Vindman will be the first current White House official set to appear as the impeachment inquiry reaches deeper into the Trump administration and Democrats prepare for the next, public phase of the probe.

The 20-year military officer will testify that he first reported his concerns after an earlier meeting in which U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland stressed the importance of having Ukraine investigate the 2016 election as well as Burisma, a company linked to the family of 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Vindman says he told Sondland that “his statements were inappropriate, that the request to investigate Biden and his son had nothing to do with national security, and that such investigations were not something the NSC was going to get involved in or push.”

He wrote, “I realized that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma, it would likely be interpreted as a partisan play which would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing the bipartisan support it has thus far maintained. This would all undermine U.S. national security.”

Vindman, who arrived in the United States as a 3-year-old from the former Soviet Union, served in various military and diplomatic posts before joining the NSC. He was the director for European affairs and a Ukraine expert under Fiona Hill, a former official who testified earlier in the impeachment probe. Hill worked for former national security adviser John Bolton.

Vindman will be a key witness. He attended Zelenskiy’s inauguration with a delegation led by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and he was part of Ukraine briefings that irritated Bolton at the White House.

He will testify that he is not the whistleblower, the still unnamed government official who filed the initial complaint over Trump’s conversation with the Ukraine president that sparked the House impeachment inquiry.

He will say he does not know who the whistleblower is.

“I am a patriot, and it is my sacred duty and honor to advance and defend OUR country, irrespective of party or politics,” Vindman wrote.

“For over twenty years as an active duty United States military officer and diplomat, I have served this country in a nonpartisan manner, and have done so with the utmost respect and professionalism for both Republican and Democratic administrations,” he wrote.

The testimony is expected the day after Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the House will vote on a resolution to affirm the impeachment investigation, set rules for public hearings and outline the potential process for writing articles of impeachment against Trump.

The vote is expected to take place on Thursday.

Former North Carolina US Sen. Kay Hagan dies at age 66

RALEIGH — Former U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, who stepped away from a banking career to be a stay-at-home mom and then ventured into politics, died Monday after a prolonged illness. She was 66.

Hagan died at her home in Greensboro of encephalitis, or brain inflammation, caused by a rare virus spread from ticks to humans, said her former Senate spokeswoman, Sadie Weiner. Hagan contracted Powassan virus in late 2016, and the subsequent brain inflammation made speaking and walking difficult for her.

“We already miss her humor and spirit as the hub of our family, a role she loved more than anything. Nobody could light up a room and make people feel welcome like Kay,” her family said in a statement.

Former President Barack Obama remembered Hagan as someone who worked with him to pass the Affordable Care Act and who had a “reasoned, pragmatic voice.”

“She was, quite simply, a terrific public servant — eager to find common ground, willing to rise above the partisan fray, and always focused on making progress for the people she served,” he said in a statement.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, said he saw Hagan in person when he visited Durham on Sunday.

“She was a champion for North Carolina and a fierce defender of all its citizens,” Biden said. “She stood for women’s rights and marriage equality, not because it was politically popular, but because it was right.”

She was crucial to passing the 2009 Recovery Act, an economic stimulus package, and the Affordable Care Act, he said.

“Her political courage helped pull our country out of recession and made life better for millions of her fellow Americans,” Biden said.

Hagan defeated North Carolina’s first female Republican U.S. senator, Elizabeth Dole, to become the state’s first female Democratic senator. She served a single term in the Senate and lost her 2014 reelection bid to Republican North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis.

Tillis, who is seeking reelection next year, said in a statement that Hagan had a “dedicated and distinguished record of public service to our state and nation.”

Gov. Roy Cooper ordered all U.S. and North Carolina flags at state buildings, facilities and grounds to be lowered to half-staff through sunset Tuesday.

“Kay was a fierce advocate for North Carolina, and she represented our state with courage and grace her entire career,” Cooper said. “She made it a mission to inspire young people — especially young girls — to enter public service, and she served as a role model to so many. North Carolina is mourning one of our best today.”

Hagan was born in Shelby, N.C., on May 26, 1953. She spent most of her childhood in Lakeland, Fla., where she worked on the mayoral campaigns of her father, Joe Ruthven. She also helped campaign for her maternal uncle, former Florida governor and U.S. Sen. Lawton Chiles. She earned her undergraduate degree from Florida State University in 1975, then earned a law degree from Wake Forest University three years later.

For 10 years, Hagan worked for NationsBank, which was to become Bank of America, where she became a vice president in the estates and trust division. After being a stay-at-home mother, Hagan launched her own political career and won a seat as a Democrat in the North Carolina state Senate in 1998.

Ten years later, the still largely unknown state legislator sought and won the U.S. Senate seat held by Dole.

Though initially reluctant, Hagan backed the Affordable Care Act pushed by Obama. She also worked to limit payday lending, continuing the effort she began as a state senator.

Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr or North Carolina said Hagan worked diligently for the state and the people she loved.

“In our time as Senate colleagues, we worked across the aisle together frequently on issues that we both knew would determine what type of country our children would inherit, from conservation to our common defense. She tackled everything she did with a passion and a sense of humor that will be missed,” Burr said in a statement.

Other former Senate colleagues also mourned her passing.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who’s seeking the Democratic nomination for president, tweeted that Hagan “was one bright yellow ray of sunshine for everyone she touched — the Senate, her beloved state of NC, her friends.”

In March 2011, Hagan sat on a congressional panel that questioned Army Secretary John McHugh regarding the unexplained deaths of 12 infants at Fort Bragg dating back to 2007. She also pushed for the release of documents pertaining to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune.

In June, Hagan made a rare public appearance at a groundbreaking ceremony for Piedmont Triad International Airport’s new air traffic control tower, for which she helped gain funding.

In addition to her father, Hagan is survived by her husband, Charles “Chip” Hagan, and three children: Jeanette Hagan, Tilden Hagan and Carrie Hagan Stewart. She’s also survived by two siblings and five grandchildren.

Legislative remapping in North Carolina upheld by judges

RALEIGH — North Carolina state judges who rejected state legislative district maps over what they called GOP bias upheld on Monday all the remapping that they ordered Republicans last month to perform.

The three-judge panel declined to meet the demands of Common Cause, the state Democratic Party and Democratic voters for a third-party expert to take over redrawing nearly 20 state House districts.

The decision means that, barring an appeal, the nearly 80 legislative districts the judges told lawmakers last month to redraw will be used in the 2020 elections. Candidate filing begins Dec. 2, with the primary set for March 3.

The districts’ final shapes will go a long way toward determining which party wins majorities in the November 2020 elections. Whichever wins will have the power in 2021 to draw the maps that will be used for the next decade based on new census population numbers.

The Democrats and Common Cause successfully challenged Republicans in their partisan gerrymandering lawsuit, prompting the remapping. But the judges disagreed with the plaintiffs’ complaints that the redrawing process wasn’t transparent, as the judges had ordered.

“The court is satisfied, despite the lapses identified by plaintiffs, that the efforts made by the General Assembly to ensure that the remedial process was conducted in public view were reasonable and complied with the court’s mandate,” Superior Court Judges Paul Ridgeway, Alma Hinton and Joseph Crosswhite wrote in their order.

Common Cause didn’t immediately comment on the decision because lawyers were still reviewing the ruling, a spokesman said. In a news release, the top Republicans on the House Redistricting Committee praised the ruling.

Legislators had to redraw nearly half of the General Assembly districts because the judges declared that the House and Senate maps approved in 2017 violated the state constitution.

But the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to the Sept. 3 ruling still objected to 19 of the redrawn House districts covering 10 counties, saying they remained stained by partisanship and violations of the rules the judges directed GOP lawmakers to follow. They didn’t challenge any Senate districts, which received more bipartisan support in the chamber.

The judges said they were OK with how the legislators originated the House district changes from sets of maps a redistricting expert hired by the plaintiffs drew for the lawsuit trial this summer.

Republican lawmakers had contended the districts, picked at random from University of Michigan researcher Jowei Chen, complied with last month’s ruling because they are clearly nonpartisan and were given great weight in the judges’ ruling. Using Chen’s maps and the methodology to select the ultimate base districts were reasonable, the judges wrote.

The judges had ordered that the maps couldn’t be drawn using voting data or election results.

The plaintiffs alleged attorneys for the Republican defendants improperly emailed partisan data with House Redistricting Committee members about Chen’s base districts. While a “serious breach of this court’s mandate,” the judges wrote, the distribution appears inadvertent and the data weren’t widely reviewed.

In last month’s ruling, the judges declared GOP lawmakers fashioned boundaries to entrench the party’s majorities in both chambers, discriminating against Democrats by weakening their votes and denying their rights to participate in elections free from interference.

Initial reviews by redistricting experts of the maps approved by the General Assembly showed they were less skewed toward Republicans than the current plans but didn’t necessarily signal Democratic majorities were likely. Republicans took sole control of both chambers in 2011 for the first time in 140 years.