State Politics

After Supreme Court ruling, NC gerrymander challengers turn to state court for relief

About a dozen protestors flanked Rev. William Barber, center, as he held a press conference in front of the Legislative Building in Raleigh, NC, on June 13, 2017. He called for the General Assembly to stop making laws until legislative districts could be redrawn following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said they were unconstitutional.
About a dozen protestors flanked Rev. William Barber, center, as he held a press conference in front of the Legislative Building in Raleigh, NC, on June 13, 2017. He called for the General Assembly to stop making laws until legislative districts could be redrawn following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said they were unconstitutional. N&O file photo

Democrats and voters who filed the first lawsuit this decade challenging North Carolina lawmakers’ redistricting plans went back to state court on Wednesday, seven years after challenging the 2011 election maps, seeking relief from districts they contend still weaken the overall influence of black voters.

The request comes the day after the U.S. Supreme Court partially granted a request from Republican lawmakers to block election lines drawn by a Stanford University law professor for four state House districts in Wake County and one House district in Mecklenburg County while they appealed a three-judge panel’s ruling.

Republicans contended in the federal case that some of the legal questions should have been settled in state court because they involved questions about violations to the state constitution, but now they are speaking out against further proceedings there.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court order issued Tuesday offered no details about why the emergency relief was granted for North Carolina’s two largest counties, election districts in both those counties raised questions about whether they should have been altered in the middle of the decade.

While that case is on appeal at the U.S. Supreme Court, the critics of the Republican redistricting plans are trying a different appeal to state judges, and they’re doing it through a case that has taken a tortuous path back to Wake County Superior Court, where it stands today.

“The stay entered yesterday by the United States Supreme Court does not deprive this state court of the authority or duty to interpret the state constitution and to ensure that Joint Plaintiffs are afforded full constitutional relief,” the 15-page request for relief submitted by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice states.

The challengers asked the state court to block the use of five state House districts adopted by the Republican lawmakers last year for Wake and Mecklenburg counties and order them to use election districts drawn by Nathaniel Persily, the Stanford University professor hired by the federal court as a “special master.”

Dallas Woodhouse, North Carolina Republican Party executive director, criticized the move as “Hail Mary efforts by the other side.”

It’s important for filing for 2018 candidates to open as scheduled on Monday, Woodhouse said, rather than be subjected to a potential delay. “They’ll do anything, go to judge after judge, to get what they want,” Woodhouse said.

A new hashtag

Rep. David Lewis, the Harnett County Republican who led the House redistricting efforts, called a news conference after the filing and tried to give some momentum to a new hashtag on social media #SueTillBlue.

With several reporters and a TV news camera in the room, Lewis read prepared remarks, saying that organizations who challenged district lines that have been declared uncontitutional by a federal panel “are trying to sow confusion and cause as much chaos as possible, as many times as possible.” The filing period for candidates seeking office opens on Feb. 12 and continues through Feb. 28.

“Here we go again,” Lewis said. “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. In short it appears that they will sue until North Carolina is blue, despite what the people, despite what the voters, want.”

“This is all part of President Obama and Eric Holder’s plan to sue all Republican states while ignoring egregious blue states like Maryland and Illinois,” Lewis continued.

“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. They are trying to ignore a Supreme Court decision that came down less than 24 hours ago.”

Democrats had a different stance.

“The Supreme Court has ruled that legislative Republicans rigged our elections with unconstitutional voting districts,” Robert Howard, a spokesman for the North Carolina Democratic Party said. “ Instead of simply drawing constitutional districts, Republicans have spent 7 years dragging this out in court. North Carolinians deserve fair elections and the right for their voices to be heard.”

Seven years later, case is alive

The case in state court was filed in 2011 by Margaret Dickson, a Democrat and former General Assembly member whose district was changed to limit her chances of winning re-election.

At issue was whether race played a key role in how the Republican-led legislature drew maps that challengers contend reflect a widely criticized redistricting system in which lawmakers choose their voters rather than voters choosing their lawmakers.

Dickson, the state NAACP and other challengers argued that the 2011 maps were racial gerrymanders drawn to weaken the influence of black voters.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the state Supreme Court to consider the case for a third time.

Twice, while the state’s high court had a Republican majority, the justices split along party lines, saying that while race had played a role in the drawing of the 2011 maps, it was used to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act.

In subsequent lawsuits filed in federal court, panels of federal judges concluded differently and ordered new lines drawn for North Carolina’s 13 congressional districts in 2016 to correct unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered North Carolina lawmakers to correct 28 unconstitutional racial gerrymanders in state House and Senate districts.

That’s the same year the U.S. Supreme Court ordered North Carolina’s highest court to take another look at Dickson’s lawsuit. The justices instructed the North Carolina courts to consider previous rulings in light of a 5-3 decision striking down two of North Carolina’s congressional districts as racial gerrymanders.

Republican lawmakers argued last year that the Dickson case was moot in light of the federal court rulings that already had struck down 2011 district lines. But Dickson and other challengers argued that until they had full relief from the gerrymanders designed to weaken the voice of black voters, the case should remain active.

States draw new election boundaries every 10 years after the U.S. census shows population shifts. That process has drawn more criticism from voters across the country in both parties as technology advances makes it easier for the party drawing the lines to pick up or exclude households based on election results and other demographics.

“It is not sufficient that the General Assembly simply enact new districts if these new districts also do not correct the constitutional flaws and comply with state and federal law,” the request for immediate intervention states. “This Court can and must intervene if deficiencies are identified and left unaddressed.”

Voting Rights Act changed

In 2011, North Carolina had to get “preclearance” from the U.S. Justice Department to make changes to voting districts in 40 counties where such sign-off was required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

But in the summer of 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated that section of the voting rights law – freeing North Carolina and eight other states, mostly in the South, to change election laws without advance federal approval.

Republicans point out that districts drawn in 2011 that were in counties where preclearance was necessary were approved by the Justice Department under the Obama administration. But the challengers counter that surrounding districts were shaped to limit the overall voting power of North Carolina’s black voters in legislative and congressional races.

Last week, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was in North Carolina to gather testimony about the state of voting rights here and across the country.

Many of the speakers referred to North Carolina’s many gerrymander cases, and urged the commission to restore some form of federal justice department review that might catch problems later found by judges to be unconstitutional.

Staff writer Lynn Bonner contributed to this report.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1

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