The N.C. Supreme Court issued notice Thursday that it would hear arguments in August on challenges to the 2011 redistricting maps that outline legislative and congressional districts across North Carolina.
The notice comes nearly three weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back to North Carolina’s highest court with instructions to reconsider a December decision that upheld the maps.
The challengers of the maps had requested a hearing in June, but the schedule released Thursday sets arguments for Aug. 31.
Anita Earls, executive director for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a law firm representing some of the challengers, said Thursday that a hearing before the N.C. justices in late August could produce a tight timeline for redrawing districts – if that were what the court decided – in time for the 2016 elections.
“They say it is expedited,” Earls pointed out, “but it isn’t as expedited as we requested.”
On April 20, the U.S. justices said the state’s Supreme Court must reconsider whether legislators relied too heavily on race when drawing the 2011 maps, which shape how state and federal elections will be decided until at least 2020.
The U.S. justices instructed the N.C. justices to reconsider the Dickson v. Rucho case, a lawsuit filed in 2011, in light of the U.S. high court’s decision in March in an Alabama redistricting case.
Margaret Dickson, a former state legislator, was one of the challengers in a lawsuit contending that maps drawn by North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature were designed to weaken the black vote in violation of the U.S. and North Carolina constitutions.
Interpretations of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling and its larger meaning and impact have reflected a gulf between Democrats and Republicans in the state.
Republicans described the order as a procedural step on a path that’s likely to result in similar support from either the N.C. Supreme Court or a three-judge Superior Court panel that upheld the maps in previous rulings.
Democrats and voters who challenged the maps argued that the U.S. justices would not send the case back without expecting a full and different review of the legal arguments, and they pushed for quick resolution of an issue that has been contested through two election cycles already.
North Carolinians, Dickson said, “deserve to have this resolved so that they can benefit from fair and legal maps for the 2016 elections.”
“We have always known that the current maps were unconstitutional and are gratified that the Supreme Court of the United States has now set in motion a way forward for final disposition of this long-running and wrongly-decided case,” she said in April.
The chairmen of the legislative redistricting committees that led the map-drawing – Rep. David Lewis, a Republican from Harnett County, and Sen. Bob Rucho, a Republican from Mecklenburg County – said they think the N.C. Supreme Court will come to the same conclusion it did in December, when it upheld the unanimous ruling of the three-judge panel that heard the case in N.C. Superior Court.
“Since 2011, every court that has issued an opinion and the Obama Justice Department has reached the same conclusion – North Carolina’s redistricting maps are constitutional,” Lewis and Rucho said in a joint statement in April. “Today’s procedural ruling is not unexpected and we are confident that our state Supreme Court will once again arrive at the same result and the U.S. Supreme Court will affirm its decision.”
In the decision issued Thursday, the N.C. Supreme Court clerk laid out a calendar for when each side should provide further argument connecting the N.C. case to the Alabama case. Documents are due in June and July.
In March, the U.S. justices issued a divided ruling in an Alabama redistricting case that has many similarities to the legal arguments posed in the North Carolina challenge.
The question in Alabama was whether the state’s Republican-led legislature relied too heavily on race when it redrew voting districts in a way that black leaders say limited minority voting power.
In that case, the justices split 5-4 along ideological lines in ruling that a three-judge panel had not properly considered complaints that state officials illegally packed black voters into too few voting districts.
Writing for the court, Justice Stephen Breyer said the lower court should have reviewed claims of racial gerrymandering on a district-by-district level, not just statewide. He also said the federal Voting Rights Act does not dictate “a particular numerical minority percentage” in each district. Instead, he said, the guiding principle requires the state “to maintain a minority’s ability to elect a preferred candidate of choice.”
“What often gets lost and overlooked in the debate about this is that an African-American’s candidate of choice is not always an African-American candidate,” said the Rev. William Barber II, head of the state NAACP, one of the organizations challenging the maps.
Congressional and legislative districts in states are tweaked or redrawn every 10 years, after each U.S. census. As in other states, the North Carolina General Assembly had to redraw political boundaries to reflect population shifts in the 2010 census.
Republicans, new to power then, point out that districts in counties where “pre-clearance” was necessary were pre-approved by the U.S. Justice Department. Key sections of the Voting Rights Act were still in play then and required North Carolina to get advance federal approval to change election laws and voting processes in 40-some counties.
The three Superior Court judges who ruled unanimously in favor of the North Carolina mapmakers concluded in 2013 that although race was considered in the design of districts, it was done to comply with the Voting Rights Act.
In their appeal, which was rejected in a 5-2 decision by the N.C. Supreme Court, the challengers argued that the Superior Court judges misunderstood the Voting Rights Act instructions for what are called “majority-minority districts,” or districts in which enough people of color must be in the voting population to elect their candidate of choice.
If minority voters already are electing their candidates of choice, and often those candidates are Democrats, attorneys for the challengers argue that districts do not have to be redrawn.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, often a swing vote, joined the court’s four liberals in the majority in the Alabama case, including justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Breyer.