Federal lawsuit against new Wake school board lines tossed

khui@newsobserver.comMarch 17, 2014 

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Judge Terrence Boyle.

DENNIS COOK — AP

A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit Monday challenging the constitutionality of new Wake County school board election maps that opponents claimed the Republican-led General Assembly drew last year for partisan purposes.

In the ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Terrence W. Boyle writes that the population variances in the new districts don’t violate the U.S. Constitution’s one-person, one-vote requirement. Boyle also writes that the claims of political bias in the new lines are unclear, making the case a question of politics, on which the court can’t rule.

“To claim impermissible political bias is to claim political gerrymandering,” Boyle writes. “To claim political gerrymandering is to raise a claim that is nonjusticiable.”

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the plaintiffs would appeal Boyle’s ruling or refile the case in state court.

Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which represented the plaintiffs, declined comment Monday. She said she needed to discuss the ruling first with her clients, who include several supporters of the Democratic majority on the Wake school board.

One plaintiff, the Rev. Earl Johnson, president of the Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association said the ruling disenfranchises thousands of voters. But he said the ruling isn’t a surprise, noting that Boyle was appointed to the bench by Republican President Ronald Reagan.

“The judge played into the hands of the Republican-led General Assembly,” Johnson said.

Republican lawmakers denied the changes were made for partisan reasons. They said their purpose was to increase the number of board members that individual voters could elect.

The ruling appears to leave on track the new school board maps to be used when voters next go to the polls in 2016.

The school board has been organized into nine districts with residents only voting on the member for the districts where they live. The lines were drawn by the school board in 2011.

Historically, the legislature has stayed out of debates over local school board lines.

But under the law passed in June, the legislature turns two of the nine seats into “regional” representation areas for the county. One district, which is strongly Democratic, includes most of the area of the old Raleigh city limits, inside the 440 Beltline. The other district consists of much of suburban Wake County and historically has voted Republican.

The lines for the other seven board districts also were redrawn.

Starting in 2016, voters would choose candidates for one of the two regional seats and another in the district where they live.

Voter registration statistics indicate that the new lines could result in a 5-4 Republican majority on the officially nonpartisan school board.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs argued that the new lines diluted the influence of some voters’ ballots by causing population differences as wide as 9.8 percent in the new districts.

But Boyle cited past court rulings allowing a 10 percent deviation, writing that the plaintiffs failed to show that the new lines are “tainted by arbitrariness and discrimination.” He also writes that the population differences between the new and old lines “are of no consequence.”

The complaint also charges that the new lines “disfavor incumbents who are registered Democrats and support progressive education policies” while trying to “further Republican interests that advance conservative agenda policies.”

But Boyle writes that it’s “less clear” that the new lines target Democratic incumbents. He also cited past court rulings that acknowledge the role of politics in redistricting.

“The reality is that districting inevitably has and is intended to have substantial political consequences,” Boyle quotes from a prior court case.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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