Another redistricting lawsuit filed in NC — this one over Wake election districts

The NAACP, League of Women Voters, A. Philip Randolph Institute, Democracy North Carolina and several voters filed a lawsuit in Wake County Superior Court on Feb. 21, 2018, challeging election lines for four state House districts — 36, 37, 40 and 41 — as violations of the state Constitution.
The NAACP, League of Women Voters, A. Philip Randolph Institute, Democracy North Carolina and several voters filed a lawsuit in Wake County Superior Court on Feb. 21, 2018, challeging election lines for four state House districts — 36, 37, 40 and 41 — as violations of the state Constitution. N&O file photo

Organizations that have challenged North Carolina redistricting plans are going back to state court over the General Assembly’s redrawing last year of election districts — this time with a new lawsuit challenging four state House districts in Wake County.

The challengers are arguing that lawmakers violated the state constitution when they redrew Wake County election districts mid-decade when federal judges had not ordered them to do so to correct other districts ruled to be racial gerrymanders.

“Voters in North Carolina have a state constitutional right to have their legislative districts changed only once a decade. This is an important protection in state law – one that many states don’t have – and its clear purpose is to prevent the ills of gerrymandering and political gamesmanship present here,” Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and lead attorney in the case, said in a statement after the lawsuit was filed.

“When tasked with fixing racially gerrymandered districts in 2017, the legislature made no secret of using politically-motivated and illegal changes throughout the county, violating the North Carolina Constitution in the process. Swapping one constitutional violation for another is not acceptable, and we expect the state courts to vigorously protect the state constitutional rights of our clients.”

The districts at the core of the lawsuit — N.C. House Districts 36, 37, 40 and 41 — currently are held by Democrats Joe John and Gale Adcock and Republicans Nelson Dollar and Linda Hunt Williams.

Hunt Williams has announced she won’t seek another term. A Democrat, Sydney Batch, and a Republican, John B. Adcock, are running for that seat.

Julie von Haefen, a Democrat and president of the Wake County PTA Council, announced her plans to challenge Dollar on Wednesday. Republican former Rep. Marilyn Avila is challenging John, who also faces Libertarian David Ulmer. Gale Adcock has drawn challenges from Emmanuel Wilder, a Republican, and Liam Leaver, a Libertarian.

The new lawsuit comes a week before the end of the filing period for candidates seeking a seat in the 2018 elections and is one of more than half a dozen filed during the past decade challenging elections lines drawn by the Republican-led General Assembly since 2011.

Earlier this month, Rep. David Lewis, the Harnett County Republican who had helped lead the redistricting process in North Carolina, voiced his frustration with all the legal challenges over the election maps through the decade.

“Here we go again,” Lewis said at a news conference after the challengers sought relief in state court.

The U.S. Supreme Court had just blocked the use of a Stanford University law professor’s election lines for Wake and Mecklenburg counties while Republicans appealed a ruling that went against the lawmakers. “These liberal, dark money groups, financed and controlled by allies of the Democratic Party, are determined to use and abuse the court system to achieve unprecedented chaos,” Lewis said. “In short it appears that they will sue until North Carolina is blue, despite what the people, despite what the voters, want.”

“...These Democrats’ groups lose in state court, they run to federal court. When they lose in federal court, they run back to state court. It is judge shopping, pure and simple.”

The federal courts have declared both congressional and state legislative districts to be unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. And last month, a panel of federal judges ruled that North Carolina’s 13 congressional districts were partisan gerrymanders that violated free speech and equal protection rights in the U.S. Constitution.

The lawsuit filed on Wednesday contends that lawmakers violated a provision in the North Carolina Constitution that prohibits lawmakers from changing election districts mid-decade.

That question came up in federal court late last year while a panel of judges weighed the constitutionality of the districts that lawmakers adopted in late August after being ordered to draw new lines to correct racial gerrymanders.

Those election lines resulted in the challengers going back to the three-judge panel with complaints that lawmakers had approved maps that still contained racial gerrymanders. They also argued that lawmakers had violated the state constitution by unnecessarily drawing some districts in the larger urban counties, but attorneys for the lawmakers argued that such questions belonged in state court, not federal court.

Earlier this month, the challengers sought relief through a longstanding case — one that former lawmaker Margaret Dickson of Cumberland County filed with other voters in 2011.

A three-judge panel ruled last week that the Dickson case was not the proper lawsuit to provide that relief and suggested that a new lawsuit could be filed.

The state NAACP, League of Women Voters of North Carolina, Democracy North Carolina, the North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute and four voters decided to bring a new lawsuit in state court.

“North Carolinians have not been able to vote in constitutional state legislative districts this decade,” Janet Hoy, co-president of the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, said in a statement. “Lawmakers have dodged their obligations to enact fair districts time and time again. That will not deter us from continuing to push fair districts for voters that comply with the state and federal constitutions.”

Marian Lewin, president of the League of Women Voters of Wake County, added her concerns, too.

“It’s a shame that lawsuits like this are necessary.” Lewin said in a statement. “We shouldn’t have to go to courts to have fair districts. But until lawmakers listen to the voters and pass redistricting plans that don’t discriminate against voters or violate the law, we are going to need strong women — like the individual plaintiffs from Wake County in this case — to continue to stand up and demand fair voting districts.”

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1