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‘Political pornography’ NC district at issue again

Mel Watt
Mel Watt Bloomberg

Even Rodney Dangerfield got more respect than North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District.

Ever since the district was created in 1992, it’s been the butt of jokes and the target of insults.

The Wall Street Journal called it “political pornography.” Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said it bore “an uncomfortable resemblance to political apartheid.” Others call it one of America’s most flagrant gerrymanders.

And last week a panel of federal judges called it unconstitutional.

The state is appealing. If the ruling stands, it could force lawmakers to redraw boundaries not only for the 12th and the 1st – which was also declared unconstitutional – but for the districts surrounding them.

It could also delay the state’s congressional elections, just as it did in 1998 and 2002.

The district that snakes from Charlotte to Greensboro is one of two where African-Americans make up a majority of the population. Both are represented by black Democrats: Alma Adams in the 12th and G.K. Butterfield in the 1st.

But it’s the 12th that has enjoyed a dubious distinction: It’s the most litigated in the country, the subject of repeated challenges and at least four rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court.

That’s because more than any other, the district has been ground zero for the debate over the proper balance of race and politics under the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Even before the 12th was created, North Carolina had a history of shaping federal voting law as well as interpreting the U.S. Constitution’s “equal protection” clause.

In 1981, lawyers filed a case on behalf of Gastonia attorney Ralph Gingles challenging the state’s multi-member legislative districts. Four years later, the Supreme Court ruled that the plan diluted black votes. That resulted in single-member districts that paved the way for the election of hundreds of black elected officials in North Carolina and across the country.

Fifteen years ago, I sat in the Supreme Court’s marbled chambers as justices tried to decide whether race or politics was the main reason for the district’s latest iteration. It was the fourth time the district had wound up in the court.

Lawyers for the state argued that politics, not race, was the reason lawmakers drew the district to help protect the state’s partisan balance. Justice Antonin Scalia wasn’t buying it. But O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were sympathetic to the state.

“My own experience is that the motive in most cases is political in drawing those boundaries,” O’Connor said. A few months later, she sided with the majority when the court voted 5-4 to uphold the district.

Back then, the debate was over a plan drawn by Democratic legislators. This time, it’s over a plan drawn by Republicans. Critics say they clustered black voters – who are predominantly Democrats – into the 12th and 1st districts, thereby taking them out of surrounding districts.

In 2010, there were seven Democrats and six Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation. Now there are 10 Republicans and three Democrats. In the redistricting case, Democrats and their allies argued that GOP lawmakers clustered black voters. The judges agreed, noting the jump in black voting age population.

“Such a consistent and whopping increase makes it clear that the general assembly’s predominant intent regarding district 12 was … race,” they wrote.

Democrat Mel Watt, who represented the 12th for two decades before going on to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, was not surprised.

“It’s a logical ruling,” he said Tuesday. “The Supreme Court has been saying for years that you can’t take race into account so much that it overwhelms everything else.

“I’m not one of those people who think Democrats didn’t gerrymander. They did. But Republicans have gone to an extreme in this case.”

Republicans say they followed guidelines and even won approval from the Democratic-controlled U.S. Justice Department. Redrawing them now, they say, would “throw our state into chaos.”

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