Judges hear case for keeping NC redistricting map

ablythe@newsobserver.comFebruary 26, 2013 

— For two days, three Superior Court judges presided over arguments about the North Carolina legislative and congressional districts drawn and adopted two years ago by the Republican-led General Assembly.

Democratic voters and civil rights and voting advocacy groups contend that dozens of districts across the state are racial gerrymanders designed to reduce the political influence of black voters and should be struck down.

Attorneys for the GOP legislative leaders and mapmakers contend the lawmakers followed legal requirements laid out by the Supreme Court when shaping the districts. Political partisanship played into their mapmaking, they acknowledged, but they argued that race was not a major principle in guiding the shapes and forms of the districts.

Now it falls to the three judges – Paul Ridgeway of Wake County, Joseph Crosswhite from Statesville and Alma Hinton from Halifax – to decide what they see in the 2011 maps.

The judges left a courtroom at Campbell University law school in downtown Raleigh on Tuesday afternoon with hundreds of pages of court documents to consider, along with the 10 hours of arguments they heard over the past two days. It could be months before they rule.

The attorneys for the mapmakers rose before the judges on Tuesday, hoping to bat back contentions by the challengers that race was the overarching principle in the design of dozens of the districts.

Thomas Farr, a Raleigh-based attorney representing Republican legislative leaders, said U.S. Supreme Court cases, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and state Supreme Court cases require race to play into the mapmaking.

In North Carolina, 40 counties are subject to monitoring by the federal Justice Department as safeguards against electoral racism. The mapmakers contend that they are required to draw districts in those regions that safeguard the influence of African-American voters.

“It’s not a racial gerrymander to draw districts with a consciousness of race,” Farr told the judges. “If that were true, your honors, all of these districts would be racial gerrymanders.”

“This case is about politics,” Farr contended later.

Maps could shape state politics

The ultimate shape of the maps could help determine which party holds power for the next decade.

Redistricting occurs every 10 years based on the national census. In 2010, Republicans took control of both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time in more than a century and led the redrawing of the lines.

Attorneys for the Democratic voters and organizations challenging the districts contend the 2011 lines are illegal, in part, because they split voting precincts and fail to keep whole counties within districts.

The lines divide neighborhoods and apartment complexes and, in at least one case, cross through a house, leaving voters and candidates confused about who’s in what precinct, argued attorneys for the map challengers.

By shaping districts that way, the challengers’ attorneys argued the mapmakers drew the lines to concentrate black voters in districts that reduce their overall political power.

But attorneys for the map drawers argued that under the 2011 plans, more black candidates were elected to the legislature.

Lawyers for the map challengers argued that a candidate of choice for black voters did not have to be a black candidate. They argued that election results showed that many of the candidates of choice among black voters were white candidates in districts that had been redrawn.

Attorneys for the mapmakers argued that the legal challenge was not about racial gerrymandering.

The challengers, Farr further contended, were interested in creating legislative and congressional maps in which black voters could “elect white Democrats.”

“It’s a fact that a Republican majority in the General Assembly is not going to support plans that they perceive as favorable to Democratic interests or harmful to Republican interests,” Alec Peters, a special deputy attorney general representing the state, told the judges on Tuesday.

Challengers push race factor

The arguments by Farr and Peters came after attorneys Anita Earls and Allison Riggs of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham, Edwin Speas of Poyner Spruill in Raleigh and Adam Stein of Ferguson, Stein, Chambers, Gresham and Sumter in Chapel Hill spent Monday making their case for the judges.

Late Tuesday, Speas and Earls rebutted arguments by Farr and Peters.

They contended, as they did Monday, that race played a predominant role in the maps and should not have.

This week’s hearing could determine whether the judges will dismiss the case, whether they will rule in favor of the challengers without a trial and further evidence or whether they will decide the case should go to trial. Political observers expect the judges’ decision to be appealed, whichever way they rule.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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