Politics & Government

North Carolina’s redistricting fight heads to Supreme Court

North Carolina’s legal fight over its election map rapidly escalated Tuesday with the state asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case in hopes of protecting next month’s primary election.

Lawyers for Gov. Pat McCrory and other state officials filed the emergency request no more than an hour after a three-judge federal panel refused to delay its order from last week that found two congressional districts, including one that runs through parts of Charlotte, unconstitutional. The judges have ordered the state to redraw the boundary for the 12th and 1st Districts by the end of next week.

That’s about a month from the March 15 primary. State lawyers have argued that putting a new voting map in place at this late date will throw the election into disarray.

That same argument, written partially in italics to convey the state’s sense of urgency, became the centerpiece of a 183-page motion to Chief Justice John Roberts late Tuesday.

“This Court should stay enforcement of the judgment immediately,” the state argued.

“North Carolina’s election process started months ago. Thousands of absentee ballots have been distributed to voters who are filling them out and returning them. Hundreds of those ballots have already been voted and returned. The primary election day for hundreds of offices and thousands of candidates is less than 40 days away and, if the judgment is not stayed, it may have to be disrupted or delayed.”

U.S. District Judges William Osteen of Greensboro and Max Cogburn of Asheville along with U.S. Circuit Judge Roger Gregory of Virginia ruled Friday that the GOP-led legislature relied too heavily on race to draw the boundaries for the 12th and 1st Congressional Districts.

Tuesday, the judges refused to delay their ruling, which blocks the state from holding any more elections under the current voting lines and requires the state to submit a new election map by the end of next week.

In a four-page answer released by Osteen late Tuesday afternoon, the judges said that the real victim in the case is not the state’s election plans but the voters who have been irreparably harmed by living within improperly drawn districts.

“The court finds that the public interest aligns with the plaintiff’s interests and thus mitigates against (delaying) the case,” the judges wrote. “The harms to North Carolina are public harms. The public has an interest in having congressional representatives elected in accordance with the Constitution.”

The 12th District, the most heavily litigated congressional district in the country during the 1990s, snakes along Interstate 85 through heavily African-American areas of Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Greensboro. The 1st District, which includes parts of 24 counties, rolls east out of Durham to Elizabeth City. Both are represented by Democrats.

GOP legislators, including state Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews, say they were motivated by partisan politics, not race, when they drew the 2011 voting map. Political motivations are allowed by the court; race, as a predominant factor, is not.

In response Tuesday, the plaintiffs in the original 2013 lawsuit – including two from Mecklenburg County – said the lines must be replaced immediately so black voters can have their lawful say.

“Plaintiffs – and every other voter in North Carolina – have already been subject to two elections under the unconstitutional enacted plan,” Raleigh attorney Edwin Speas wrote. “The General Assembly’s improper use of race to sort voters by the color of their skin has violated the Fourteenth Amendment rights of millions of North Carolinian(s).”

That harm “vastly outweighs the administrative inconvenience and additional cost the state will incur if the primary is delayed.”

Court fights over district lines led to delays in North Carolina elections in 1998 and 2002. Congressional and legislative districts, along with the state’s new voting rules, are now the subject of at least five federal lawsuits moving through the courts.

The last-minute urgency in the battle over the 12th and 1st Districts results in part from a Republican push in 2013 to move the primary election from May to March to increase the state’s role in this year’s presidential election. McCrory signed the bill into law only weeks before the trial of the redistricting lawsuit began.

In the 1990s, four North Carolina court fights over voting lines found their way to the Supreme Court. If Roberts and his fellow Supreme Court justices agree to get involved this time, they will be returning to familiar ground.

Last year, the high court shot down Alabama’s congressional districts based on largely the same racial argument. The Roberts court, however, has tried to avoid rulings that could disrupt elections and confuse voters.

Legislative leaders say McCrory is poised to call a special legislative session next week to address the issue, if needed.

Minority leader Dan Blue, D-Wake, said Tuesday that the time for action is overdue.

“The voters of North Carolina have waited for five years for the right to be heard – both at the judicial level and at the polls,” Blue said. “We applaud the federal court panel’s decision as a crucial first step in ensuring that every individual’s right to vote is protected.”

Rucho and Rep. David Lewis, the legislature’s redistricting chairmen, said in a joint statement Tuesday night that the state’s primary and hundreds of absentee ballots have been placed in jeopardy by the lower court order.

“We hope the U.S. Supreme Court will recognize the urgency and gravity … and issue a stay.”

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS

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