State Politics

Federal judge upholds new Wake County school board, commission maps

The new Wake County school districts
The new Wake County school districts

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s new election maps for Wake County’s school board and Board of Commissioners.

In a ruling dated Friday, U.S. Chief District Court Judge James C. Dever III ruled that a coalition of left-leaning plaintiffs had failed to show that the General Assembly’s lines for Wake County violated the one-person, one vote requirement in the federal and state constitutions. Dever also ruled that the plaintiffs failed to prove that the General Assembly racially gerrymandered the lines for the district covering Southeast Raleigh.

“The court finds that the General Assembly did not engage in invidious discrimination, act arbitrarily, or act in bad faith in enabling the 2013 Wake County School Board Plan or the 2015 Wake County Commissioners Plan,” Dever wrote in his 108-page opinion.

Dever was nominated to the U.S. District Court in 2005 by President George W. Bush.

It was uncertain as of Monday evening whether the ruling would be appealed. The lines were adopted along party lines by the Republican-led General Assembly over the objections of the school board and board of commissioners, which both have Democratic majorities but aren’t plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

“We are reviewing the ruling with our clients,” said Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which represented the plaintiffs. “We’ll have an announcement regarding the appeal soon.”

The same team which worked on the new Wake County lines also drew up the contested maps for state and federal legislative races. On Feb. 19, the General Assembly approved new congressional district boundaries to satisfy a court order to correct two districts that a panel of federal judges considered the result of racial gerrymandering.

Dever said the plaintiffs in the Wake County case had failed to show that race was the predominant factor motivating the boundaries for the majority-minority district covering Southeast Raleigh.

Barring a successful appeal, the ruling paves the way for the new maps to be used in November. All nine school board seats are on this year’s ballot. Five members of the newly expanded nine-seat board of commissioners will also be on this year’s ballot.

In 2013, the General Assembly approved new maps that converted two of the nine school board seats into super-regional districts, each representing half the county. One would largely represent Central Raleigh and the other would represent the suburbs. The lines for the remaining seven school board seat districts were revised, too, along with the election cycle.

The school board is scheduled to discuss the impact of the new lines at Tuesday’s work session.

Republican lawmakers denied the change was made for partisan reasons. They said that it would allow individual voters to have more of a say by being able to vote for two school board seats: their own district and the super district.

In April 2015, the General Assembly changed the maps for the Wake County Board of Commissioners to match those used for the school board. The change expanded the size of the board from seven to nine members. But in the process, voters lost the ability to vote for every seat and would only be able to decide on two seats.

Lawmakers said eliminating countywide voting would increase representation for Wake’s smaller communities.

In March 2014, U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle dismissed the lawsuit challenging the school board maps. But in May 2015, a three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals revived the lawsuit, sending it back to trial court.

Separate lawsuits challenging the school board and commission maps were consolidated into one case that was heard in Dever’s courtroom in December.

During the trial, plaintiffs presented expert witnesses who contended that the lines were drawn up in an excessively partisan way designed to help Republican candidates. Dever writes in his opinion that he found the witnesses “not credible.”

Dever was particularly critical of testimony that indicated that the voting trends in the new lines could flip both boards from Democratic to Republican control.

“The court rejects as unsubstantiated plaintiffs’ proposed inference ... that the 2013 Wake County School Board Plan ensures that voters will elect candidates in five of the nine School Board districts who are registered Republicans,” Dever writes.

Dever also said plaintiffs failed to prove that the new lines were drawn up to disadvantage urban voters and voters who support “progressive” educational policies.

“The court finds that parental views on student-assignment policies (including any change to the socio-economic diversity policy) cannot fairly be characterized as ‘progressive’ or ‘conservative,’” Dever writes.

Another argument made by plaintiffs is that the changes didn’t have the support of Wake County voters.

“Although the court acknowledges the sincerity of those who oppose the 2015 Wake County Commissioners Plan, the court rejects plaintiffs’ argument that the 2015 Wake County Board Commissioners Plan ignores the ‘will’ of the voters,” Dever writes. “The voters elected the General Assembly, and a majority of the General Assembly voted in favor of the 2015 Wake County Commissioners Plan.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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