North Carolina’s boundaries for General Assembly and congressional seats were drawn four years ago by Republican legislators and have been used in the past two election cycles, helping bolster GOP electoral gains.
Yet litigation challenging boundaries, which called the role that race played in forming the districts discriminatory and illegal, remains unresolved.
Combined lawsuits filed by election and civil rights groups and Democratic voters are back at the state Supreme Court. Justices will hear arguments Monday about whether they should change their majority ruling from eight months ago, which upheld the maps, now that there’s a new U.S. Supreme Court decision.
In April, the nation’s highest court told North Carolina state judges to reconsider the case in light of a March ruling in an Alabama redistricting case.
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The U.S. justices found Alabama legislators relied too much on “mechanical” numerical percentages while drawing legislative districts in which blacks comprised a majority of the population.
Those who sued over North Carolina’s maps in 2011 believe the ruling in the Alabama matter is spot on with the boundaries drawn by the General Assembly. They argued in court briefs that it confirms two dozen legislative districts, along with the majority-black 1st and 12th Congressional Districts, should be struck down and maps redrawn quickly by the legislature for the 2016 elections.
State attorneys and legislative leaders contend the Alabama case is altogether different, and the current maps should remain intact.
“They’re fair and legal,” said Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, the Senate’s chief mapmaker in 2011. “We don’t suspect there will be any changes because the decision of the Alabama case is like apples and (oranges) to the case that we presented.”
Lawyers challenging the maps argue North Carolina GOP leaders, as in Alabama, went beyond what the U.S. Voting Rights Act and case law demand by shoehorning black voters into irregularly shaped districts and eroding their ability to elect their preferred candidates.
North Carolina lawmakers created even more majority-minority districts compared to the maps drawn last decade mostly by Democrats, and increased the percentage of black voters in previously majority-black state House districts.
Although there’s now a record number of black legislators, those lawmakers and the black voters they represent have less influence than before because they are crammed in districts as adjoining districts became more Republican, said Anita Earls, an attorney representing the state NAACP, a plaintiff.
Black legislators “would say that they have less power than they’ve ever had,” Earls said. “They have no ability to get their policies or positions passed.”
Earls and her allies point to previous districts where black lawmakers have won in districts that are less than 50 percent black by swaying white voters, too. But the state’s attorneys counter that no black candidate was elected to the General Assembly in 2010 from a majority-white district.
Rucho said mapmakers followed redistricting principles set out by the state Supreme Court more than 10 years ago. They’ve argued that the law and court rulings make clear creating majority-minority districts is justified to protect the state from discrimination litigation.
Rucho said Alabama legislators went far and beyond the Voting Rights Act by creating districts with black populations of 60 and 70 percent, Rucho said. None of North Carolina’s majority-black districts exceeded 57 percent.
Those who sued said race was the predominant factor in drawing the districts, making them racial gerrymanders that can’t be justified. But legislators said the maps were chiefly designed to retain Republican majorities in the General Assembly.
A Virginia congressional district also has been reviewed in light of the Alabama matter. A panel of federal judges ruled again that Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District was unlawful.
The prevailing decision by North Carolina’s justices is likely to be appealed back to the U.S. Supreme Court. There are also two other pending North Carolina redistricting cases in federal court.