RALEIGH — North Carolina’s legislative and congressional boundaries were upheld Monday by a three-judge panel, a decision lauded by state Republicans who oversaw the drafting of the maps in 2011.
The unanimous ruling came as a blow to Democrats, civil rights groups and voting rights advocates who contend the districts are racial gerrymanders designed to weaken the influence of black voters across North Carolina.
Though they have 30 days to decide, attorneys representing the groups say the case is likely to be appealed to the state Supreme Court and possibly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sen. Bob Rucho, a Republican from Mecklenburg County who led one of the General Assembly redistricting committees, said on Monday that he hoped the case would not be appealed.
“The three-judge panel pretty much rejected every single one of their arguments,” Rucho said after reading the 171-page decision. “We are very pleased with the result that came from the court. It validated what we’ve been saying all along.’
The decision validates legislative and congressional districts intended to be used through the 2020 elections. Though they were immediately challenged after they were drawn in 2011, the maps were used in the 2012 elections and have been shown to favor Republicans.
The redistricting maps helped Republicans expand their majority in the state legislature in the 2012 elections. In the House, Republicans picked up nine seats and now dominate Democrats 77-43. The Senate added two Republican members, and hold a 33-17 advantage.
Republicans contend they followed the law when developing the new districts and they point to several places in the ruling from the three-judge panel to bolster their contentions.
“It is the ultimate holding of this trial court that the redistricting plans enacted by the General Assembly in 2011 must be upheld and that the Enacted Plans do not impair the constitutional rights of the citizens of North Carolina as those rights are defined by law,” the judges’ ruling said.
Rucho and State Rep. David Lewis, a Republican from Harnett County, said in a statement the “unanimous decision should put to rest the baseless arguments that the General Assembly engaged in racial discrimination during the redistricting process.
“The court’s unanimous decision is a clear repudiation of the unfounded assertions of the plaintiffs,” Rucho and Lewis said, “and is proof that the General Assembly followed the letter and spirit of the law in establishing new voting boundaries that are fair and legal. We are pleased that the unanimous decision makes clear that the General Assembly protected the rights of minority voters, as required by the U.S. and North Carolina Constitutions.”
Sen. Dan Blue, a Raleigh Democrat who testified at a redistricting hearing last month, said he expected the case to go to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Blue, a veteran legislator, was in one of the districts that voters and groups behind the lawsuits contended needlessly packed black voters into districts where racially polarized voting doesn’t exist anymore.
“Where the U.S. Supreme Court has been going on race-based classifications, there’s no way they’re going to allow just indiscriminate race classification to stand,” Blue said.
Attorneys for GOP legislative leaders and mapmakers argued that 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.
The judges agreed.
“Political losses and partisan disadvantage are not the proper subject for judicial review, and those whose power or influence is stripped away by shifting political winds cannot seek a remedy from courts of law, but they must find relief from courts of public opinion in future elections,” the judges wrote in their ruling.
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.
After the maps cleared the General Assembly, they were reviewed and “pre-cleared’ by the U.S. Justice Department under a procedure laid out by the federal Voting Rights Act. The U.S. Justice Department, whose leadership was appointed by Democratic President Barack Obama, found the maps did not hurt the ability of minorities to elect candidates of their choice.
In court hearings this year, attorneys for the Republican lawmakers argued that districts with a high percentage of minority voters were drawn to comply with the Voting Rights Act.
The three-judge panel – Judges Paul Ridgeway of Wake County, Joseph Crosswhite of Iredell County and Alma Hinton of Halifax County – found that the maps did not “pack” districts as defined by previous appellate court rulings. Lawmakers, the judges ruled, had a “limited degree of leeway” in applying past judicial decisions.
The ruling pointed out that each judge “independently and collectively arrived at the conclusions” set out in the decision, despite their “differing ideological and political outlooks.”
Door open for challenge
But the voters and organizations behind the lawsuit filed in 2011 said after the ruling that the three-judge panel left legal openings for a challenge.
“We appreciate the consideration that the trial court gave this case,” a statement from the Democracy Project said. “We understand the precedent constraints that they labored under. We believe that there are numerous issues that will need to be resolved by higher courts.”
The Rev. William Barber, president of the state chapter for the NAACP, which also sued, said the judges didn’t disagree with facts presented by the challengers.
“It’s a disagreement of interpretation of law,” Barber said.
The mapmakers said creating black-majority districts in some areas of the state was a lawful way to prevent the state from subjecting itself to legal claims under the federal Voting Rights Act, designed to protect minority voters.
The judges wrote several times in their ruling that the General Assembly “had a strong basis in evidence,” including testimony from oral arguments this year, other court cases, previous election results and map and census data, to draw the maps the way they did.
The plaintiffs challenged 30 districts – nine in the state Senate, 18 in the state House and three U.S. Congressional districts. They complained that Republicans created many majority-minority districts in regions where black voters had elected their favored candidates in coalitions with whites for decades.
By shaping districts that way, the challengers’ attorneys argued the mapmakers drew the lines to concentrate black voters in districts that reduced their overall political power.
U.S. Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat, ran in an oddly shaped redrawn district that was one of the subjects of the June hearing. The district includes pieces of Triangle counties and runs through Harnett and into Cumberland. Price said that Democrats capturing only four of 13 U.S. House seats while winning 51 percent of the congressional vote shows that “something is very badly amiss.”
Maps produced by a Democratic legislature a decade ago produced a more balanced result, he said. Seven Democrats and six Republicans were elected from the state to the U.S. House in the election before redistricting.
“I still believe there is very strong evidence that race was a strong factor in how those districts were drawn,” Price said of the GOP maps.
Attorneys for the map drawers pointed out that under the 2011 districts 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. And at hearings earlier this year, they contended that those challenging the maps 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 at a hearing in February.
A need to change process
Some argued on Monday that the judges’ decision underscores a need to change the process for redistricting no matter which party is in power.
Jane Pinsky, a representative with the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, said the panel noted: “Redistricting in North Carolina is an inherently political and intensely partisan process that results in political winners and, of course, political losers. The political party controlling the General Assembly hopes, through redistricting legislation, to apportion the citizens of North Carolina in a manner that will secure the prevailing party’s political gain for at least another decade.“
She pushed for reforms that were considered in the state House of Representatives in 2011 to take partisan politics out of the process by 2021.
“Redistricting in North Carolina is and has been for over a hundred years a partisan political process,” Pinsky said in a statement. “It has always benefited the party in power, punished the party out of power.”