Politics & Government

Supreme Court upholds part of Stanford law professor’s redistricting plan for NC

Editor’s Note: Since publication, the N&O has learned that passages from this story were taken in large part or in whole from “Supreme Court Upholds Texas Voting Maps That Were Called Discriminatory” by the New York Times without attribution. This is a violation of our standards. We apologize to our readers.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday upheld some of the districts drawn by a Stanford University law professor to be used this year to elect state lawmakers, but not in Wake and Mecklenburg counties.

That means North Carolina voters will go to the polls in November to elect General Assembly members from districts that were in place in February, when candidates filed for office.

“Thanks to the dedication of the plaintiffs in this case, voters in North Carolina will finally be able to vote in state legislative districts drawn without unconstitutional racial discrimination,” said Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which represented Sandra Little Covington, a former lawmaker, and other challengers in the case. “The order from the Supreme Court today sends the message loud and clear that discrimination, even if hidden under a self-proclaimed veil of ignorance, will not be tolerated in the redistricting process. We’re glad to see the district court’s careful, well-documented findings on this front affirmed.”

In January, a three-judge panel ordered North Carolina lawmakers to use maps created by Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford University law professor they hired to reshape election districts the General Assembly had adopted in August 2017.

The lawmakers had been ordered to redraw election districts mid-decade after the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that 28 of the districts used for elections from 2012 to 2016 were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.

After that redraw, the challengers of the 2011 maps argued that some of the 2017 districts still were shaped to weaken the overall influence of black voters. They also argued that some of the districts in urban areas such as Wake and Mecklenburg counties were altered mid-decade in violation of the state Constitution.

Every 10 years after the census, states tweak election lines to show population shifts. For years, parties in power have used the process to try to keep and gain seats in state legislative bodies and in Congress.

Republicans dominate the General Assembly with numbers that allow them to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes. They hold 35 of the 50 Senate seats and 75 of the 120 House seats.

Ending veto-proof majorities could make it more likely that Republicans at the helm will negotiate with Democrats, including Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

Persily redrew just a fraction of the state’s 170 legislative districts, mostly in urban counties that tend to favor Democrats. Most of the districts drawn in August by the lawmakers favor Republicans, according to a News & Observer analysis.

Persily’s plan altered nine legislative districts adopted by lawmakers in 2017, but the Supreme Court blocked the use of five of those districts in Wake and Mecklenburg counties.

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The four districts upheld by the Supreme Court are in Cumberland, Hoke, Wayne, Sampson and Guilford counties.

“The people of North Carolina finally have assurance that the districts used in the 2018 primary will be used in the 2018 general election,” said Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican who led the redistricting process. “We hope this stops the plaintiff’s continued gamesmanship and overtly political litigation.”

The Wake and Mecklenburg districts are the subject of a lawsuit filed by the state NAACP in state court.

In April, a three-judge panel issued an order announcing it would not block the use of the districts this year while the lawsuit makes its way through court. The judges said at the time that, with the court record they had, the NAACP was likely to succeed on the merits of the case. But because the candidate filing period already had ended and early voting had begun for primary elections, the judges were reluctant to upend the election process.

That means election districts for state House and Senate seats in Wake and Mecklenburg counties could change before the 2020 elections, when the lawmakers who will lead the next round of redistricting will be elected.

“North Carolina Republicans threw a hail Mary to the courts because they’re afraid to run in fairer districts, especially after refusing to give our public schools the resources they deserve and threatening health care for people with preexisting conditions,” Wayne Goodwin, chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party, said. “Democrats are ready to break the super-majority this fall and bring common sense back to Raleigh.”

Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, said that though Republicans were not thrilled that some of Persily’s districts will be used in the coming election year, he was not altogether dissatisfied with the Supreme Court rulings this month on gerrymandering cases.

The justices sent partisan gerrymandering cases from North Carolina, Wisconsin and Maryland back for further proceedings with instructions to show individual harm rather than statewide.

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On Monday, the Supreme Court upheld, for the most part, an array of congressional and state legislative districts in Texas that the lower courts had found to be unconstitutional racial gerrymanders that weakened the influence of black and Hispanic voters.

The ruling was 5 to 4, with the court’s more conservative members in the majority. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the majority, said the trial court had “committed a fundamental legal error” by requiring state officials to justify their use of voting maps that had been largely drawn by the trial court itself.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the majority opinion represented a dark day for voting rights in America. No longer, she said, could “all voters, regardless of race,” be guaranteed the right to equal protection if the court does “not remain vigilant in curbing states’ efforts to undermine the ability of minority voters to meaningfully exercise that right.”

Woodhouse said those decisions coupled with the retirement announcement from Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan appointee long considered to be the swing vote in gerrymandering cases, buoyed the hopes of Republicans.

“The Democrats were hoping that Justice Kennedy was going to save them from their own electoral problems, and that’s not going to happen,” Woodhouse said.