State Politics

Federal judges find NC legislative districts unconstitutional

The map that has twice been used to elect the North Carolina General Assembly is unconstitutional because many of the districts are racially gerrymandered, a panel of federal judges ruled Thursday.

Elections can proceed this year, the judges said in their order, because postponing the election would cause “undue disruption.” But the legislature must redraw the districts in the next legislative session for use in 2018.

The judges concluded that “the overriding priority of the redistricting plan was to draw a predetermined, race-based number of districts.”

The defendants “have not shown that their use of race to draw any of these districts was narrowly tailored to further a compelling state interest,” the opinion said.

Of the 170 legislative districts, 28 are racially gerrymandered, judges ruled.

Thirty-one voters sued over the districts, saying that the maps needlessly increased percentages of black voters in districts where voters were already electing candidates of their choice. The lawsuit said the legislature in its 2011 redistricting adopted nine majority-black Senate districts where previously none were majority black, and 23 majority-black House districts where previously 10 were majority black.

The result was bizarrely shaped districts that cross natural geographic boundaries and split precincts, with traditional principles in redistricting “plainly subjugated to race,” the complaint said.

Redistricting leaders in the House and Senate, Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County and Sen. Bob Rucho of Mecklenburg County, said in a statement that their attorneys are reviewing the ruling. After the legislature approved the districts, the U.S. Department of Justice signed off on them in a process called “preclearance.”

“We are disappointed in the district court’s opinion, which contradicts the Obama Justice Department’s preclearance of these maps and rulings from the N.C. Supreme Court upholding them as constitutional,” Lewis and Rucho wrote. “However, we are relieved for voters that the district court did not disrupt the current election that is already underway. Our attorneys are currently reviewing today’s ruling and evaluating next steps.”

If the legislature must redraw districts before 2020, it could affect the balance of power in the General Assembly and determine how the next round of post-Census redistricting proceeds in 2021. The legislature must redraw districts at least once every 10 years to balance the populations in the districts. The party in power uses redistricting to gain advantage for its candidates in elections.

The new districts had a real impact on voters, said Anita Earls of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers. When district boundaries split precincts and divide neighborhoods, it makes it harder for voters to know who is representing them in Raleigh, and for legislators to connect to their constituents, she said.

Lead plaintiff Sandra Covington, a retired teacher from Fayetteville, said it was wrong to draw her into a district based on her race. She lives in House District 42, where 15 of 19 precincts are split.

“I was plucked out of my district and placed into another district simply because of my race,” she said in a statement. “Today’s decision is a clear message that North Carolina voters have a right not to be assigned to election districts based solely on the color of their skin.”

The lawsuit was filed in May 2015, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in an Alabama case that a lower court should reconsider whether legislators in that state had weakened the influence of minority voters by packing them into districts.

The North Carolina case was assigned to a three-judge panel, including U.S. Court of Appeals Judge James A. Wynn Jr. and U.S. district judges Thomas D. Schroeder and Catherine Eagles. The plaintiffs asked for an injunction, but the panel denied it. The trial was in April.

The opinion says that it should not be read to imply that majority-black districts are no longer needed in the state, and that majority-black districts could be drawn using traditional criteria.

Earls said the plaintiffs had not decided their next steps, but that waiting until 2018 for an election with new maps was not the only option. Since they were denied an injunction but ended up winning, they could ask for a remedy such as a special election in 2017.

“We haven’t determined what we’ll be asking for,” she said. “There’s a lot to be considered.”

Thursday’s ruling is one in a string of losses the courts handed the legislature this year in redistricting.

It follows a decision last winter that found that two of the state’s congressional districts were racial gerrymanders. The legislature had to redraw all 13 districts to comply with the court order, and congressional primaries were delayed. That new plan is now the subject of a new lawsuit claiming unconstitutional political gerrymandering.

A federal court last month invalidated redistricting plans for Wake County commissioner and school board districts.

Thursday’s opinion triggered another call from the group Common Cause NC for an independent redistricting commission. The group has worked unsuccessfully for years to get the legislature to give up the job of drawing its own district maps.

The state NAACP has taken a case on legislative districts similar to the one decided Thursday to the U.S. Supreme Court, opposing what the Rev. William Barber II, the organization’s president, called “apartheid districts.”

Everyone should be upset about having voted in unconstitutional districts for the past four years, Barber said.

“This ruling is a tremendous ruling that the Republican-led legislature used racial discrimination to undermine the power of the black vote and other minority voters, which is contrary to our Constitution and our democracy,” Barber said.

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer