Politics & Government

As gerrymandering fight continues, ruling expected soon on Wake County political maps

Rep. David Lewis: Democrats ‘will sue until North Carolina is blue’

NC House Rules Chairman David Lewis held a press conference Wednesday afternoon to blast the plaintiffs in a legislative redistricting lawsuit for continuing their legal action as the candidate filing period looms. "Literally all they care about i
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NC House Rules Chairman David Lewis held a press conference Wednesday afternoon to blast the plaintiffs in a legislative redistricting lawsuit for continuing their legal action as the candidate filing period looms. "Literally all they care about i

After Republican legislators were given a court order to redraw two racially gerrymandered districts in Southeast Raleigh, they made the necessary changes last year.

But they also took the opportunity to redraw the lines for four other Wake County districts — which violated the state constitution, according to a lawsuit heard Friday.

The four districts being challenged are for seats in the N.C. House of Representatives covering Fuquay-Varina, Holly Springs, Apex, Cary, Morrisville and parts of North Raleigh. They are represented by Republican Reps. Nelson Dollar and John Adcock (who was appointed to replaced Linda Hunt Williams), as well as by Democratic Reps. Gayle Adcock and Joe John.

None of the four districts were challenged as racial gerrymanders or border the two districts that were struck down.

The North Carolina NAACP, League of Women Voters and several individual Wake County residents sued legislative leaders earlier this year in Wake County Superior Court, seeking to overturn the actions of the N.C. General Assembly regarding those four districts. But lawmakers stand by their actions.

“It’s very easy to Monday-morning-quarterback a redistricting plan,” said Phil Strach, a lawyer for the legislature, before a three-judge panel on Friday. “Anyone can do it. .... Anyone can take pot shots at what the legislature did, but no one really knows in advance what it will take to correct that racial gerrymandering.”

Allison Riggs, a Southern Coalition for Social Justice attorney who represents the NAACP, said complaining about Monday morning quarterbacking is not an adequate legal defense. She also said it’s absolutely possible to figure out how to correct racial gerrymandering without redrawing too many other districts.

In fact, she said, her clients had an expert do just that by drawing maps that corrected the racial gerrymanders in Southeast Raleigh — which are currently held by Democrats Rosa Gill and Yvonne Holley — while leaving the suburban districts untouched.

“They still stubbornly claim an erroneous understanding of racial gerrymandering today,” Riggs said of Republican legislative leaders. “The racial gerrymandering districts are (Gill’s and Holley’s). You don’t have to change every district in the county to fix (those two).”

History of the case

Riggs and the plaintiffs tried in February to get the 2017 changes thrown out before the primary elections, held this spring, for the 2018 midterms.

The same three-judge panel that heard Friday’s arguments ruled back in April that while the plaintiffs had a good argument and would probably win, it was too soon before the primaries to reasonably change up the districts. That meant this November’s elections are also being held using the controversial lines.

But if the challengers win, they would force a change for the primary and general elections in 2020.

The panel — which is made up of judges Paul Ridgeway of Wake County, Joseph Crosswhite of Alexander and Iredell counties, and Alma Hinton of Halifax County — said Friday they plan to have a ruling soon.

The legal details

The case boils down to an interpretation of constitutional law.

The state constitution says lawmakers can only redraw districts after each Census. That means they can’t be redrawn in the middle of the decade except by court order, Riggs said, so the legislature’s decision to redraw these four districts in 2017 was clearly unconstitutional.

Strach said federal law trumps state law. So when a federal court ordered the legislature to fix federal constitutional issues with racial gerrymandering, he said, state constitutional concerns became moot.

“It’s undisputed the federal violations were fixed by the legislature,” he said. “And whatever the state constitution says here would have to yield.”

If the judges rule in favor of the NAACP, as they indicated they would earlier this year, they’ll also have to decide how to proceed with redrawing the maps. Strach said the General Assembly will continue fighting in court if any outside group is given the power to redraw the maps.

Riggs, however, criticized the possibility of further court proceedings.

“All this is, is about delay,” she said. “There’s no need for a trial in this matter. … In fact it needs a quick decision, so we can make sure districts are in place for 2020 and voters aren’t deprived of the chance to participate in fair elections.”

Gerrymandering background

Republicans took control of the legislature in 2011, which was the same year legislative lines all over the country were being redrawn, to represent changes found in the 2010 Census.

Some states have independent commissions do their redistricting, but North Carolina leaves it up to whatever political party controls the state legislature. That meant after a century of Democratic control in North Carolina, Republicans finally had the chance in 2011 to draw all the lines used to elect members of the U.S. House of Representatives, the N.C. House of Representatives and the N.C. Senate.

All of those maps have since been found unconstitutional due to racial gerrymandering that reduced the political power of black people.

The legislature redrew the maps, as ordered by federal courts, but their new attempts have continued to draw lawsuits alleging further constitutional violations, like the allegations heard Friday.

The U.S. congressional maps were ruled unconstitutional again just last month, due not to racial gerrymandering but to partisan gerrymandering, although the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to issue a definitive ruling in that case.

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Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran