State Politics

Common Cause sues over NC congressional districts

Joint Select Committee on Congressional Redistricting members review historical voting maps during a meeting at the N.C. legislature in February.
Joint Select Committee on Congressional Redistricting members review historical voting maps during a meeting at the N.C. legislature in February.

While redrawing congressional districts this past winter, Republican state lawmakers emphasized that the new lines were meant to keep Republicans in control of 10 seats in North Carolina’s delegation, leaving three seats for Democrats.

Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican and House redistricting leader, said at a meeting that he wanted the maps drawn “to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”

That explicit partisan intent is the target of a lawsuit filed Friday seeking to overturn the districts.

The legislature redrew the 13 congressional districts this year to satisfy a court order after a three-judge panel determined that two of the state’s districts were racial gerrymanders that unlawfully diluted black votes.

The latest legal challenge comes from Common Cause, a critic of Democrats when they used control of the legislature to draw districts for partisan advantage, and of Republicans who did the same after they took control in 2011. Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the state Democratic Party; current and former legislators including House Minority Leader Larry Hall, a Durham Democrat; and Democratic voters.

The defendants are Lewis and Sen. Bob Rucho of Mecklenburg County, legislative leaders, the State Board of Elections and Gov. Pat McCrory.

The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed redistricting plans to go forward in the past despite claims of partisan motivation. But Common Cause hopes the court is now ready to decide that partisan gerrymandering, as well as racial gerrymandering, violates the Constitution.

Bob Phillips, executive director of the North Carolina chapter of Common Cause, said there are suggestions that the “time is ripe” to file the lawsuit.

Opinions by U.S. Supreme Court justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Anthony Kennedy in particular, have suggested that they believe partisan gerrymandering is a problem, Phillips said.

“Partisanship might be the next frontier for redistricting cases,” said Wendy Underhill, director of the Elections and Redistricting Program for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

A statement from Lewis and Rucho, the redistricting chairmen for their chambers, said the lawsuit is a partisan attack.

“It’s ironic that a lawsuit filed by partisan Democrats for no other reason than to advance their own partisan interests would attack a map already affirmed by a federal three-judge panel that splits fewer counties and fewer precincts than any Congressional map adopted in the modern era in North Carolina,” the statement said. “This is just the latest in a long line of attempts by far-left groups to use the federal court system to take away the rights of North Carolina voters.”

The state has a long history of court decisions based on lawsuits focused on the racial makeup of voting districts. But a federal court dismissed a 1992 lawsuit filed by Republicans against Democrats that claimed partisan gerrymandering.

Common Cause said in a statement Friday that its lawsuit could be a landmark and lead the Supreme Court to decide whether partisan gerrymandering is constitutional.

“Perhaps for the first time ever in North Carolina, state legislators have freely and publicly admitted that they gerrymandered for rank partisan advantage,” Phillips said in a statement.

“That open admission was done because the courts have placed limits on racial gerrymandering, but have left unanswered the question of whether partisan gerrymandering is allowable. We believe our case can finally make clear that gerrymandering of any kind violates the constitutional rights of North Carolina voters.”

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina in Greensboro.

Christine Bowser of Mecklenburg County and David Harris of Durham, two North Carolinians who were part of the initial challenge of the 2011 congressional district maps that led to the redrawing this year, also filed a request this week for the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the question of partisan gerrymanders. Their initial appeal of the districts was successful on the grounds of racial gerrymandering, but they have been unsuccessful in appealing the redrawn maps, which they say used a “brazen approach” to redistricting.

That request could put the question of partisan gerrymandering before the U.S. justices before the Common Cause case is heard.

The Common Cause lawsuit claims that the districts violate the First Amendment by favoring some voters and burdening others. The suit claims the district plan violates the Fourteenth Amendment because it deprives Democratic voters and the state Democratic Party of equal protection under laws.

Before federal judges approved redrawn districts for use in this year’s elections, Bowser and Harris had asked the judges to reject the plan as a “blatant, unapologetic partisan gerrymander.”

The three-judge panel rejected that challenge but invited a new lawsuit.

Common Cause NC has been pushing for years for a law to take the job of drawing districts away from legislators, but has been unable to get a bill passed in both chambers.

Ted Arrington, a retired political scientist at UNC Charlotte and national expert on redistricting, said the case could break new ground. He pointed to North Carolina’s long history of redistricting litigation.

“North Carolina is famous for giving us landmark cases in legislative redistricting,” he said Friday. “It’s a good place to make a case.”

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner