The N.C. Supreme Court ruled overwhelmingly last week that communications between legislators and their lawyers during the 2011 redistricting process are protected by attorney-client privileges.
That’s a blow to plaintiffs who have challenged the N.C. General Assembly’s redistricting plan through lawsuits. But on a deeper level, the ruling is a disappointment to those of us who want government to be as transparent as possible.
It’s one thing for a lawmaker to invoke attorney-client privilege when he has been charged with committing a criminal offense. That assurance is important for anyone to receive a fair trial in the United States, and justly so.
But the legislators involved in the redistricting process have been accused of no crime. They purportedly were conducting business for the people of North Carolina when they went about redrawing legislative districts and congressional districts. The lawyers they consulted were paid with taxpayers’ money.
In our view, that makes “we the people” just as a much of a client as anyone sitting in a legislative office on Jones Street in Raleigh. We’d go so far as to suggest that we more closely fit the role of client than our lawmakers, since legislators are supposed to be public servants, representing the interests of the folks back home.
Leaving aside redistricting for a moment, we worry that “attorney-client privilege” now can be taken to illogical lengths, considering this precedent. If there’s a controversial bill that a special interest group is lobbying intently for, can a lawmaker now forward some of that correspondence to a lawyer so that neither the press nor the public can have access to the lobbyist’s communiques?
The redistricting process of 2011 dramatically changed the makeup of North Carolina’s legislature and congressional delegation. Pertinent questions about the process shouldn’t be an affront to our lawmakers.
It’s a shame the N.C. Supreme Court doesn’t agree.