COLUMBIA -- Two of South Carolina's top legislators will not have to testify about their debate over redrawing the state's new U.S. House districts, according to a ruling from a federal judge.
U.S. District Judge Patrick Duffy ruled this week that state House Speaker Bobby Harrell and state Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell don't have to answer deposition questions about how lawmakers drafted the new maps.
Attorneys for the Charleston Republicans had argued that legislative privilege protected them from testifying about decisions concerning redistricting. Duffy also ruled that the lawmakers don't have to answer questions about legislators' discussions with "private consultants or experts."
Harrell and McConnell are among the defendants in a lawsuit filed last year over new U.S. House district lines, including the state's new 7th District along the coast.
Six black voters are challenging the plan passed by the GOP-dominated Legislature, claiming the race-based plan creates "voting apartheid."
The Department of Justice has already said it would not challenge the new layout. The proposed maps for South Carolina and other Southern states require federal approval under the Voting Rights Act because of a history of inequitable treatment of black voters.
The lawsuit asks a three-judge panel to throw out the plan, make lawmakers draw a new one and bar any elections based on the current plan.
Attorneys for the black voters had argued that state lawmakers like Harrell and McConnell are not protected by the same legislative immunity that Congress members enjoy and should therefore be compelled to testify about how lawmakers arrived at the new map.
"While the legislative process is normally protected for the benefit of the public, here it is proper to investigate it to ensure the protection of constitutional rights," wrote Dick Harpootlian, the state Democratic Party chairman who also represents the voters.
The voters challenging the lines live in Florence, Sumter, Georgetown, Berkeley, Darlington and Charleston counties.
They are suing Gov. Nikki Haley, the Legislature and other state officials and claim a race-based plan for the state's seven districts "creates a system of voting apartheid in South Carolina that segregates white and black voters into election districts" and packs black voters into one congressional district.
Redistricting is a once-a-decade process to make sure political district lines reflect population changes revealed by the U.S. Census. South Carolina is picking up a seventh U.S. House seat -- something the Palmetto State had decades ago, before population fell in 1930. That new district was added to the state's northeastern corner on the coast, and a multitude of candidates have announced their decisions to run.
One of the original judges considering the case stepped aside in December.
U.S. District Judge Mark Gergel recused himself after Billy Wilkins -- a former federal judge now representing the plaintiffs -- said that Gergel, as a private practice lawyer in 2000, served as lead counsel for a former Democratic governor in South Carolina's last redistricting court battle.