Raleigh, N.C. — A three-judge panel on Monday upheld legislative and congressional districts drawn by the Republican-dominated General Assembly in 2011, ruling unanimously that the maps were constitutional.
Democrats, the state NAACP and good-government groups had sued to invalidate the maps, saying they were improperly drawn based on racial considerations. The opponents also argued lawmakers too finely split the state, dividing so many local voting precincts that it would create confusion.
But the three Superior Court judges found that those challenging the maps had not showed "a violation of any cognizable equal protection rights of any North Carolina citizens, or groups thereof, will result."
The plaintiffs in the case, including a former state lawmaker and the state NAACP, have 30 days to decide whether to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.
"With the unanimous decision, I can't imagine they have any grounds at all to appeal," said Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, one of the lead mapmakers for the legislature. "When we drew fair and legal district maps, we followed the letter of the law. That's been the intent since Day One."
The opinion addresses two different lawsuits that were combined into one case. One suit was brought by the NAACP and other groups. The other case involved 45 plaintiffs, lead by former state Sen. Margaret Dickson of Fayetteville, a contingent that served as a proxy for the state Democratic Party.
"I was hoping on a better outcome," said Sen. Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, the minority leader in the state Senate. He said Monday morning that he had not read the decision, but based on the how the case has proceeded, he anticipated a more favorable ruling.
That said, the three-judge panel's ruling does not end the case, and Nesbitt speculated, "it is probably going to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court."
“We appreciate the consideration that the trial court gave this case," reads a statement released by the plaintiffs led by Dickson. "We understand the precedent constraints that they labored under. We believe that there are numerous issues that will need to be resolved by higher courts. Once we have fully reviewed today’s ruling, we will have more to say in the coming days.”
The NAACP was less circumspect in its response, calling the voting maps "harsh, oppressive and racially divisive."
"We contend that these maps were drawn unfairly and unnecessarily, and that the law is on our side," the group said in a statement. "The N.C. NAACP is disappointed in the court's inability to accurately interpret applicable law. This ruling is a sanction on political re-segregation, which we plan to challenge."
Maps already have cleared one hurdle
The General Assembly redraws the maps for North Carolina's 13 congressional districts, 50 state Senate districts and 120 state House districts every 10 years following the U.S. Census. The last census was conducted in 2010, and lawmakers redrew the districts in 2011.
Ideally, districts are redrawn only to ensure that each elected lawmaker represents roughly the same number of people. However, state legislators have long drawn districts to favor whichever party happens to be in control of the General Assembly. Democrats were at the helm of redistricting efforts for the better part of a century.
But in 2010, Republicans controlled both the House and Senate and, therefore, redistricting legislation. Former Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat who left office in early 2013, had no say in how the districts were drawn because state law does not give the governor veto authority over redistricting plans.
Republicans leveraged those favorable districts to win super-majorities of both the state House and Senate, as well as capture nine of the state's U.S. House seats.
After the maps cleared the General Assembly, they were reviewed and "pre-cleared" by the U.S. Justice Department under a procedure laid out by the federal Voting Rights Act. The U.S. Justice Department, whose leadership was appointed by Democratic President Barack Obama, found the maps did not hurt the ability of minorities to elect candidates of their choice.
In fact, Republican lawmakers frequently cited their need to comply with voting rights law as a reason to create legislative districts that contained high concentrations of minority voters. Plaintiffs challenging the districts said lawmakers were trying to illegally "pack" minority voters into a few districts, diluting their overall influence.
But the three-judge panel found that the maps did not "pack" districts as defined by prior appellate court rulings. Lawmakers, the judges ruled, had a "limited degree of leeway" in applying past judicial decisions.
The maps drawn in 2011 were used for the 2012 election, even as they were being challenged in state court following federal pre-clearance. State law creates a special judicial process for redistricting cases. Now that the panel – made up of Judges Paul Ridgeway of Wake County, Joseph Crosswhite of Iredell County and Alma Hinton of Halifax County – has made its decision, plaintiffs can appeal directly to the state Supreme Court.