NC Supreme Court upholds 2011 election district maps

Rep. John Faircloth checks maps during a meeting of joint redistricting committees Monday, Nov. 7, 2011.
Rep. John Faircloth checks maps during a meeting of joint redistricting committees Monday, Nov. 7, 2011. tiwabu@newsobserver.com

The N.C. Supreme Court on Friday issued a ruling upholding the legislative and congressional districts for this decade, giving approval for a second time to maps that have been the underpinnings of lawsuits through the past two election cycles.

At issue is whether race played a key role in how the Republican-led legislature drew maps in 2011.

The justices were split 4-3 along party lines over how that question should be answered.

That question will linger as another election cycle gets under way. The plaintiffs immediately announced plans to appeal.

The NAACP and other challengers argue that the districts are racial gerrymanders designed to weaken the influence of black voters. In Dickson v. Rucho, filed by former state Rep. Margaret Dickson and others against state Sen. Bob Rucho and others, the challengers contend that black voters were packed into districts where they already had been electing candidates of their choice – largely Democratic candidates, effectively limiting minority voting power across the state.

A panel of three N.C. Superior Court judges ruled unanimously in July 2013 in favor of the North Carolina mapmakers, concluding that although race was considered in the design of the districts, it was done so to comply with the Voting Rights Act.

The N.C. Supreme Court heard arguments in January 2014 appealing the three-judge panel’s decision. In December 2014, the state’s highest court upheld the ruling by the three judges, opening the door for further appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In April, the nation’s highest court sent the North Carolina redistricting case back to the N.C. Supreme Court with short instruction: Reconsider the case in light of the U.S. court’s March ruling in an Alabama redistricting case.

The N.C. justices heard arguments on that point in late August.

The ruling issued Friday had echoes of the December 2014 ruling.

The dissenters – Justices Cheri Beasley, Sam Ervin IV and Robin Hudson, three Democrats – said the three-judge panel had not specified the extent to which race played a role in the shaping of the districts and that the case should be sent back for the trial court for that elaboration.

The legislators who shepherded the redistricting process – Rep. David Lewis, a Republican from Harnett County, and Rucho, a Republican from Mecklenburg County – issued a joint statement and described the plaintiffs’ plans to seek further review from the U.S. Supreme Court as “frivolous” and “politically motivated.”

“We are pleased with the court’s decision, which validates these maps for a fourth time and once again makes clear the General Assembly protected the rights of voters and established voting boundaries that are fair and legal,” the legislators said.

Dickson, the former senator and lead plaintiff in the case, issued a statement less than 30 minutes after the ruling criticizing the majority opinion.

“Today’s ruling by the North Carolina Supreme Court reflects their continued misunderstanding of the facts in this case and the law,” Dickson said. “We are confident that we will prevail and that North Carolinians will finally get fair and legal districts from which to elect their representatives.”

The majority opinion was written by Justice Paul Newby, with Chief Justice Mark Martin and Justices Robert H. Edmunds Jr. and Barbara Jackson concurring. The opinion states that though race was a factor, the plaintiffs had failed to show that was the primary factor for altering districts in 2011. The courts have long ruled that partisan motives can play a role in redistricting. Though African-Americans typically vote more Democratic than Republican, the map drawers could not use race as the driving force for changing district lines.

Beasley said in the dissenting opinion that the state’s highest court should have sent the case back to the three-judge panel for further review and questions with regard to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Alabama case.

She stated that the three-judge panel did not ask enough questions about the role race played in the shaping of the districts. The state lawmakers acknowledged that districts were drawn with race in mind, but they said they did so to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act.

In the Alabama case, the U.S. justices found that the Alabama courts and legislators relied too much on a “mechanically numerical” view of whether the new plan reduced minority voting strength. Instead of asking how it could maintain the minority percentages in districts, the court should have asked what percentages the minority should have to elect their candidate of choice, the U.S. justices stated.

States draw new election boundaries every 10 years after the U.S. census shows population shifts, and that process often leads to accusations of political and racial gerrymanders.

In 2011, North Carolina had to get “pre-clearance” from the U.S. Justice Department to make changes to voting districts in 40 counties that were governed by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

But in the summer of 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated that section of the act – freeing North Carolina and eight other states, mostly in the South, to change election laws without advance federal approval.

Republicans point out that districts drawn in 2011 that were in counties where “pre-clearance” was necessary were preapproved by the U.S. Justice Department.

Though the majority ruling written by Newby stated that North Carolina’s redistricting process was different from Alabama’s map drawing rules, attorneys for the plaintiffs continue to disagree.

“The majority has, in effect, readopted, without any modification, the decision it made a year ago and concluded that the Alabama decision doesn’t have an impact,” said Edwin Speas, an attorney for the challengers.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1