Wake Ed

Elections officials want rehearing of Wake County school case

A ruling that keeps alive a legal challenge of Wake County school board election maps drawn in 2013 by the Republican-led state legislature has been put on hold while judges hear a request to reconsider the case.

The Wake County Board of Elections has asked the entire U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider a 2-1 decision by an appellate panel that reversed the dismissal of the lawsuit challenging the new Wake school lines. The June request means the May decision sending the case back to a trial court for further consideration has been stayed until the new request is ruled upon.

Elections officials are also asking for an expedited hearing “because of the impending implementation in 2016 of the redistricting plan at issue here.” Under the General Assembly’s plan, all nine school board seats under the new lines would go on the November 2016 ballot.

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.

Judge James A. Wynn Jr., appointed by President Barack Obama, and supported by Judge Roger L. Gregory, a Bill Clinton appointee, said in their May majority ruling that the courts should weigh questions about whether the 2013 plan violates the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee that all votes are weighted equally.

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 Wake County Board of Elections seizes on Motz’ dissent in its request for the entire appellate court to hear the case. The Board of Elections contends the panel majority’s opinion conflicts with U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

“The dissent properly notes that the panel majority’s decision will, for the first time, require courts to wade into the political thicket to resolve claims of ‘policy’ favoritism in challenges to redistricting plans,” writes Charles Marshall, an attorney for the Wake County Board of Elections in the request for a rehearing. “It also could force local election boards to defend claims of pure political gerrymandering from all walks of the political and issue advocacy spectrum regarding electoral districts that contain only de minimis population deviations.

“The prospect of such open-ended litigation will only increase the uncertainties and costs borne by local elections boards charged to prepare for and administer local elections.”

Although the State of North Carolina was dropped as a defendant, its attorneys are supporting the request for all 15 justices on the 4th Circuit to hear the case. The Wake County Board of Elections, tasked with enforcing state elections law, is the sole remaining defendant in the case.

But the plaintiffs respond that the appellate panel’s decision is consistent with prior U.S. Supreme Court rulings. The plaintiffs also dispute the concerns raised by elections officials.

“The parade of horribles predicted by Defendant to result from the majority opinion is inaccurate and irrelevant,” writes Anita Earls, the attorney for the plaintiffs and the executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “The panel opinion does not invite courts to wade into political thickets or invite claims for pure political gerrymandering from every corner of the political spectrum for de minimis population deviations.”

Meanwhile, a separate federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of new lines the legislature drew up for the Wake County Board of Commissioners is making its way through the district court phase. Those new lines are the same as the ones adopted for the school board.