North Carolina Supreme Court justices heard new arguments Monday on a four-year-old case challenging the maps that set out legislative and congressional districts for this decade.
At issue is 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.
In North Carolina, the NAACP and other challengers argue that the 2011 maps are racial gerrymanders drawn to weaken the influence of black voters.
In Dickson v. Rucho, filed by former state Rep. Margaret Dickson and others against state Sen. Bob Rucho and others, challengers contend that black voters were packed into districts where they already had been electing candidates of their choice – largely Democratic candidates, effectively limiting minority voting power across the state.
A panel of three N.C. Superior Court judges ruled unanimously in July 2013 in favor of the North Carolina mapmakers, concluding that although race was considered in the design of the districts, it was done so to comply with the Voting Rights Act.
The N.C. Supreme Court heard arguments in January 2014 appealing the three-judge decision. In December, the state’s highest court upheld the ruling, opening the door for further appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In April, the nation’s highest court sent the North Carolina redistricting case back to the N.C. Supreme Court with short instruction: Reconsider the case in light of the U.S. court’s March ruling in an Alabama redistricting case.
Attorneys for the state lawmakers argued Monday that North Carolina’s redistricting differed from the Alabama map redrawing.
Politics or race?
In the Alabama case, the U.S. justices issued a divided ruling. Split along ideological lines, the justices said the Alabama courts must take another look at whether the legislature there relied too heavily on race when it redrew the state’s voting districts in a way that black leaders say limited minority voting power.
Writing for the majority, U.S. Justice Stephen Breyer said the Alabama lower court should have reviewed claims of racial gerrymandering on a district-by-district level, not just statewide. He also said the court didn’t apply the right test when it found that race wasn’t the primary motivating factor.
Breyer said both the district court and the state legislature relied too much on a “mechanically numerical” view of whether the new plan reduced minority voting strength. Instead of asking how it could maintain the minority percentages in districts, the court should have asked what percentages the minority should have to elect their candidate of choice.
“Asking the wrong question may well have led to the wrong answer,” Breyer said.
In trying to distinguish the North Carolina case from Alabama, Thomas Farr, a private attorney representing the state legislature, argued that “the legislature applied, perhaps, the most complicated formula in the U.S. for drawing legislative districts.”
Farr further added that North Carolina’s high court “already held that political consideration and incumbency protection were factors that went into the drawing of these districts.”
“With all due respect to the plaintiffs’ counsel,” Farr added, “Senator Rucho and Representative (David) Lewis issued a statement where they said they understood that drawing majority black districts would make the adjoining districts more competitive for Republicans and I’m sure that that is one piece of evidence this court relied upon in its finding that it’s already made – that political protections and incumbency protections played a role in drawing these districts.”
Rucho, a Republican senator from Mecklenburg County, and Lewis, a Republican state House member from Harnett County, shepherded the redistricting process through the legislature.
Edwin Speas, a Raleigh attorney representing challengers of the maps, told the N.C. justices on Monday that Farr’s comment underscored a point the challengers have tried to make since filing their complaint almost four years ago.
Though the courts have allowed political parties to draw districts for political advantage, they prohibit racial gerrymandering as a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
“I finally heard from Mr. Farr what he means by politics,” Speas said at the close of the Monday hearing. He cites a statement by Sen. Rucho that, ‘If we draw the districts this way and put all these African-American citizens in these districts, it will have a ripple effect and our political goals will be furthered.’”
Speas continued to tell the justices what he thought the “bottom line” was. “When a legislative body uses race to accomplish their political goals, its actions are subject to the 14th Amendment. Politics is no defense to the 14th Amendment.”
It’s unclear how long before a ruling is issued. Challengers are hoping for a speedy decision so that expected appeals from either side can be resolved in time for the 2016 elections.
State legislators and U.S. congressmen were at Monday’s hearing, which drew an overflow crowd. Dozens of people gathered in a first-floor overflow room, where the hearing was broadcast on a big screen.
There has been much attention on North Carolina since Republicans gained control of both General Assembly chambers and the governor’s office in 2012.
The state has been seen as a testing ground for election law changes, tax policies, deregulation and social-program cutbacks that national conservative organizations have promoted as part of their 21st-century platforms.
Grier Martin, a state House member and a Wake County Democrat, was among the legislators talking with media after the N.C. Supreme Court hearing. “When voters see themselves shuffled around for racial reasons, they tend to lose faith in the process,” Martin said.
Rev. William Barber, head of the state NAACP; Bob Hall, head of Democracy North Carolina, a watchdog group that tracks the role of money in politics and voter participation issues; and Anita Earls, a lawyer representing the NAACP and the executive director of the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice, talked with news crews outside the hearing, too.
“Nobody has ever done political gerrymandering using race in such an excessive way,” Hall said. “They’re trying to divide us by race.”
Like other states, the North Carolina General Assembly had to redraw political boundaries to reflect population shifts in the 2010 Census. The process can often lead to accusations of gerrymandering – the manipulation of district boundaries to gain a partisan advantage.
In 2011, North Carolina had to get “pre-clearance” from the U.S. Justice Department to make changes in 40 counties that were governed by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
But in the summer of 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated that section of the act – freeing North Carolina and eight other states, mostly in the South, to change election laws without advance federal approval.
But Republicans point out that districts drawn in 2011 that were in counties where “pre-clearance” was necessary were pre-approved by the U.S. Justice Department.
Though that was often repeated in hearings before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Alabama redistricting, Farr, the only attorney who spoke for the legislators, said Monday that politics and incumbency protection were the driving factors behind the new districts.