The U.S. Supreme Court’s order remanding the N.C. Supreme Court’s flawed decision on voting district maps officially arrived in Raleigh on Tuesday. With that, the clock gets ticking for the state Supreme Court to make up for its disturbing delay in deciding the case. It should accelerate the process the second time around.
Redistricting cases have a special urgency, and this one has been handled with intolerable foot-dragging. The state’s previous redistricting case in 2002 was resolved within five months. In the current case, a consolidation of Dickson v. Rucho and the NAACP v. The State of North Carolina, the lawsuits filed in November 2011 have waited more than three years and five months without resolution. Typical of the pace was the state Supreme Court’s taking 11 months after hearing oral arguments before issuing its 4-2 ruling in December upholding the maps.
Eddie Speas, a Raleigh attorney for the plaintiffs who served with the state’s Office of Attorney General from 1971 to 2003, said of the court’s slow movement, “Viewed in isolation, I don’t think the time is especially remarkable, but these are special cases that have historically been handled very promptly.”
Extended deliberation hardly enhanced the state Supreme Court’s judgment. The nation’s high court vacated the state ruling and sent it back, saying the court did not properly assess how the Republican-led General Assembly used race when it redrew district lines. Plaintiffs argue that Republicans packed districts with black voters to weaken their influence in other districts. The Republican map-drawers, led by state Sen. Bob Rucho and state Rep. David Lewis, say they were following the dictates of the Voting Rights Act.
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In March, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Alabama Black Caucus v. Alabama that mechanically drawing districts by racial formulas was not required by the Voting Rights Act. Rather, it said, the mapmakers should flexibly consider “the extent to which they must preserve existing minority percentages in order to maintain the minority’s present ability to elect the candidate of its choice.”
In North Carolina, the plaintiffs argued that more African-American voters were added to districts in which African-Americans had already shown the ability to be elected. It was a solution to a non-existent problem, but it had the effect of making other districts more favorable to Republicans.
The U.S. Supreme Court ordered the N.C. Supreme Court to consider objections to the North Carolina maps in light of its Alabama decision. That direction doesn’t mean the law has changed since the state court ruled. Rather, the law has been made explicit. N.C. State Supreme Court Justice Cheri Beasley, in a dissent joined by Justice Robin Hudson, made essentially the same point as the high court and quoted its rulings to that effect.
This case has dragged on for two election cycles and conceivably could not be resolved in time for the 2016 elections. That means that two and possibly three elections could be conducted based on maps that could ultimately be found to be illegal.
Redistricting maps shape political power, and political power shapes the law. That’s why challenges to redistricting maps need to resolved quickly. When judicial indifference to that urgency favors the ruling party, it raises doubts about the independence of the court.
The plaintiffs have filed a motion for an expedited schedule on this second go-round. The N.C. Supreme Court can either send the case back to the original trial court, a three-judge panel, or reconsider it on its own. Either way, the state Supreme Court must act to ensure that a ruling is in place well in advance of the filing deadline for the 2016 elections. Further delay would be justice denied for North Carolina voters.