Raleigh, N.C. — The North Carolina Supreme Court on Friday upheld the constitutionality of state voting maps drawn by the Republican-majority legislature in 2011.
Critics of the maps filed suit against them, arguing that they violated the constitutional rights of minority voters.
A coalition of groups, including the League of Women Voters, the state chapter of the NAACP and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, argued that Republican mapmakers had packed black voters into a small number of districts, thereby reducing their voting power in neighboring districts that were drawn to favor GOP candidates.
Authors of the maps argued that they were following the requirements of the federal 1965 Voting Rights Act, which required mapmakers in states subject to the federal law to create majority-minority districts where possible to ensure the viability of minority candidates.
Two separate lawsuits were combined and heard by a special three-judge panel in July 2013. That panel sided with the mapmakers.
The state Supreme Court heard the case on appeal in January but did not release its decision for 11 months.
In the court's 4-2 ruling, Associate Justice Robert Edmunds Jr. wrote for the majority, “We agree with the unanimous three-judge panel that the General Assembly’s enacted plans do not violate plaintiffs’ constitutional rights. We hold that the enacted House and Senate plans satisfy state and federal constitutional and statutory requirements."
Associate Justices Cheri Beasley and Robin Hudson dissented with most of the majority opinion, and Associate Justice Bob Hunter, who was not on the high court when the case was heard, did not take part.
The decision spurred renewed allegations of extremist politics from both sides in the case.
Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, and Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, their respective chambers' redistricting chairmen, praised the ruling.
“Today’s decision confirms that our redistricting process and maps are what we have said all along: fair and legal," Lewis and Rucho said in a joint statement. “We are proud to have broken the cycle set by previous legislatures that repeatedly saw their maps tossed out by the courts as illegal. We hope today’s decision will finally put to rest the hyper-partisan rhetoric parroted by our opponents out of political spite.”
NAACP attorney Irving Joyner responded, "It is certainly regrettable that the North Carolina Supreme Court has sanctioned the use of race bias by the North Carolina General Assembly in an unlawful effort to promote and protect the political interests of extremist elements of the Republican Party."
"The citizens of North Carolina look to the court to be a fair and impartial arbiter of the rule of law. Unfortunately, the court has failed that important mission," added plaintiff and former state Rep. Margaret Dickson, D-Cumberland.
In a statement, Southern Coalition for Social Justice attorney Anita Earls called the decision "a disappointing development." The group will appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"It is simply wrong for the legislature to carve up this state on the basis of race in these circumstances, " Earls said.
Voting-rights group Common Cause North Carolina said the ruling is further evidence of the need to reform the state's redistricting process, noting that, since 1980, North Carolina's voting maps have been challenged in court more than three dozen times.
"North Carolina's system of drawing voting maps continues to be highly dysfunctional and deeply partisan. Both political parties have used the power of redistricting to craft voting maps that favor their own side, depriving voters of a real choice on Election Day and leading to costly battles in the courts," Common Cause director Bob Phillips said in a statement. "Fortunately, our state can enact sensible, bipartisan reform that would make redistricting fair and impartial, protecting the right of voters to have a voice in who represents them."