US Supreme Court sends voting district case back to NC Supreme Court

Rep. John Faircloth checks maps during a meeting of joint redistricting committees Monday, Nov. 7, 2011. North Carolina lawmakers returned for a special legislative session Monday.
Rep. John Faircloth checks maps during a meeting of joint redistricting committees Monday, Nov. 7, 2011. North Carolina lawmakers returned for a special legislative session Monday. 2011 News & Observer file photo

The U.S. Supreme Court threw out a North Carolina Supreme Court ruling on Monday that had upheld the state’s Republican-drawn legislative and congressional districts.

The U.S. justices said the state’s highest court must reconsider whether legislators relied too heavily on race when drawing the 2011 maps, which shape how state and federal elections will be decided until at least 2020.

The justices said the state court must reconsider its December 2014 ruling in the Dickson v. Rucho case in light of the U.S. high court’s decision last month in an Alabama redistricting case.

Margaret Dickson, a former state representative, was one of the challengers in a lawsuit contending that maps drawn by the Republican-led legislature in North Carolina were designed to weaken the black vote in violation of the U.S. and North Carolina constitutions.

Within hours of the U.S. Supreme Court decision, interpretations of its larger meaning and impact reflected a gulf between Democrats and Republicans in the state.

Republicans described the order as a procedural step on a path that’s likely to result in similar support from either the N.C. Supreme Court or a three-judge Superior Court panel that upheld the maps in previous rulings.

Democrats and voters who challenged the maps argued that the U.S. justices would not send the case back without expecting a full and different review of the legal arguments, and they pushed for quick resolution of an issue that has been contested through two election cycles already.

North Carolinians, Dickson said, “deserve to have this resolved so that they can benefit from fair and legal maps for the 2016 elections.”

“We have always known that the current maps were unconstitutional and are gratified that the Supreme Court of the United States has now set in motion a way forward for final disposition of this long-running and wrongly-decided case,” she said in a statement.

The chairmen of the legislative redistricting committees that led the map-drawing – Rep. David Lewis, a Republican from Harnett County, and Sen. Bob Rucho, a Republican from Mecklenburg County – said they believe the N.C. Supreme Court will come to the same conclusion it did in December, when it upheld the unanimous ruling of the three-judge panel that heard the case in N.C. Superior Court.

“Since 2011, every court that has issued an opinion and the Obama Justice Department has reached the same conclusion – North Carolina’s redistricting maps are constitutional,” Lewis and Rucho said in a joint statement on Monday. “Today’s procedural ruling is not unexpected and we are confident that our state Supreme Court will once again arrive at the same result and the U.S. Supreme Court will affirm its decision.”

Alabama case

Monday’s decision was set in motion in March, when the U.S. justices issued a divided ruling in the Alabama case, saying the state high court there must take another look. The question there is whether Alabama’s Republican-led legislature relied too heavily on race when it redrew the state’s voting districts in a way that black leaders say limited minority voting power.

In that case, the justices split 5-4 along ideological lines in ruling that a three-judge panel had not properly considered complaints that state officials illegally packed black voters into too few voting districts.

Writing for the court, Justice Stephen Breyer said the lower court should have reviewed claims of racial gerrymandering on a district-by-district level, not just statewide. He also said the federal Voting Rights Act does not dictate “a particular numerical minority percentage” in each district. Instead, he said, the guiding principle requires the state “to maintain a minority’s ability to elect a preferred candidate of choice.”

“What often gets lost and overlooked in the debate about this is that an African-American’s candidate of choice is not always an African-American candidate,” said the Rev. William Barber II, head of the state NAACP, one of the organizations challenging the maps. “What the North Carolina legislature did was stack, pack and bleach African-American votes out of certain districts. They have used their political power to engage in 21st-century racial gerrymandering.”

The courts allow political parties to draw districts for political advantage, but they prohibit racial gerrymandering.

Congressional and legislative districts in states are tweaked or redrawn every 10 years, after each U.S. census.

Like other states, the North Carolina General Assembly had to redraw political boundaries to reflect population shifts in the 2010 census. The process often leads to accusations of gerrymandering – the manipulation of district boundaries to gain a partisan advantage.

Voting Rights Act’s role

Republicans, new to power then, point out that districts in counties where “pre-clearance” was necessary were pre-approved by the U.S. Justice Department. Key sections of the Voting Rights Act were still in play then and required North Carolina to get advance federal approval to change election laws and voting processes in 40-some counties.

The three Superior Court judges who ruled unanimously in favor of the North Carolina mapmakers concluded in 2013 that although race was considered in the design of districts, it was done to comply with the Voting Rights Act.

In their appeal, which was rejected in a 5-2 decision by the N.C. Supreme Court, the challengers argued that the Superior Court judges misunderstood the Voting Rights Act instructions for what are called “majority-minority districts,” or districts in which enough people of color must be in the voting population to elect their candidate of choice.

If minority voters already are electing their candidates of choice, and often those candidates are Democrats, attorneys for the challengers argue that districts do not have to be redrawn.

‘Wrong question’

“Asking the wrong question may well have led to the wrong answer,” Breyer said in the Alabama case.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, often a swing vote, joined the court’s four liberals in the majority in the Alabama case, including justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

Anita Earls, executive director for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, has said that she and other challengers of the North Carolina maps think they have a stronger case than the Alabama lawsuit.

But in March, Phil Berger, the state Senate leader, and Tim Moore, the N.C. House speaker, said in a joint statement that they thought the Alabama and North Carolina redistricting cases addressed “different questions of law.”

Reformers took notice, too. They said partisan gerrymandering diminishes robust political debate and undercuts the ability of voters to exercise a meaningful choice in elections. They want lawmakers to let an independent group draw the maps in North Carolina.

“It is time for North Carolina to have a nonpartisan system that creates fair, impartial districts,” said Jane Pinsky, driector of the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform. “It is also time for North Carolina to have a redistricting system that does not require court involvement, special sessions of the North Carolina General Assembly, and elections to be delayed. All of these have happened in the last three decades.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948;

Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

What is redistricting?

It’s the process of drawing electoral boundaries.

Does every state follow the same process?

In North Carolina and 32 other states, the state legislature has primary responsibility for creating a redistricting plan. Seven states, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey and Washington have tried to diminish the role politics plays and used independent or bipartisan redistricting commissions to set congressional districts. Florida, Iowa, Maine and New York give independent bodies authority to propose redistricting plans but the legislatures there play a role in approval.

Were the legislative maps challenged in North Carolina after the Democrats led the last redistricting?

Yes. The courts upheld some of the districts and sent several back for redrawing.

What has been the result of the 2011 redistricting?

It depends on who responds.

North Carolina Republicans say the number of minority legislators has reached record numbers in the North Carolina General Assembly since the latest round of redistricting. In the 2009 legislative session, when Democrats were in charge, there were 30 black legislators. There are 34 black lawmakers today.

Democrats say the black and minority vote has been weakened – “stacked, packed and bleached” out of districts. The GOP overwhelmingly controls the state legislature and holds 10 of 13 congressional seats in a state where Democrats are the predominant party.

Does the U.S. Supreme Court ruling have any impact on challenges to the changes to the Wake County board of commissioners and school board elections processes?

It’s too early to tell.