The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling on Wednesday that keeps alive a legal challenge of Wake County school board election maps drawn in 2013 by the Republican-led state legislature.
The ruling from a three-judge panel, with a 2-1 split, sends the case back to the trial court for further consideration.
At issue is whether the legislature in June 2013 drew new voting districts of unequal size to weaken the influence of urban voters and strengthen the chances for suburban voters to return a Republican majority to the Wake County school board.
The plaintiffs contend that U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle erred in March 2014 when he dismissed the lawsuit filed by 13 Wake County voters and the Coalition of Concerned Citizens for African-American Children and Raleigh Wake Citizens Association —organizations whose largely African-American memberships live in the affected areas.
The complaint accuses Republican legislative leaders and the Wake elections officials tasked with enforcing state elections law of putting in place a plan that unfairly weakens the power of urban voters and strengthens the suburban and rural vote.
Chad Barefoot, a state senator from Wake County, shepherded the school map changes through the General Assembly and this year succeeded with a similar plan changing the election process for the Wake County board of commissioners — which also has been challenged.
The state contends that the school board lines meet legal requirements and that plaintiffs’ have raised political issues that a federal judge correctly dismissed. But the federal appeals court ruling issued Wednesday states otherwise.
Judge James A. Wynn Jr., appointed by President Barack Obama, and supported by Judge Roger L. Gregory, a Bill Clinton appointee, said in their majority ruling that the courts should weigh questions about whether the 2013 plan violates the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee that all votes are weighted equally.
“At the end of the day, we cannot say whether plaintiffs will ultimately succeed with their equal protection claim,” Wynn wrote. “But we can say that they have made allegations sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss...”
Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, a Clinton appointee, disagreed. She pointed out that school board races are nonpartisan and suggested the lawsuit was asking federal judges to “referee a dispute as to ‘policy’” that forced them to enter the kind of “political thicket” the U.S. Supreme Court has long discouraged.
The redrawing of the districts occurred after Republicans lost a majority control on a school board that drew national attention to its plans to end busing for socioeconomic diversity.
In 2011, Democratic-backed candidates swept all five seats on the ballot and regained a majority that they’ve since expanded.
Until June 2013, the county had been split into nine districts in which voters had a choice of candidates only in the district in which they lived. Two years ago, the Republican-led General Assembly redrew all the lines, making it possible for voters to have a vote both in the district in which they lived and for an at-large seat.
In the lawsuit filed in August 2013, the plaintiffs contended the new lines gave suburban voters a more weighted vote than urban voters and therefore was unconstitutional.
But state lawmakers argued that the new lines fell within the 10 percent population variance that’s historically allowed for voting districts. Wynn and Gregory stated in their majority opinion that the U.S Supreme Court has issued at least one ruling rejecting an automatic “safe harbor” for any redistricting plans that rest within the 10 percent threshold.