Raleigh, N.C. — As he listened to lawyers wrap up their arguments Friday over how Wake County commissioner and school board districts were drawn, U.S. District Judge James Dever was pondering how to draw some lines of his own.
How, he asked, should the court draw the line between political boundaries that permissibly take partisan advantage into account and those that illegally create misshapen, overpopulated districts in order to favor one party over another.
Charles Marshall, a lawyer for the Wake County Board of Elections, said the standard has to be other than what opponents of the maps drawn by lawmakers in 2013 and 2015 would have it be. Finding against the maps, he said, would open the door to a constant stream of challenges that would make it hard to administer elections of any sort.
"Redistricting is a political process," Marshall told Dever.
He acknowledged there may be evidence that lawmakers used hasty process and made decisions counter to the wishes of a large and vocal number of Wake County voters, but he said the judge's role was just to figure out if the maps are constitutional or not.
"What the plaintiffs seem to be doing through most of their evidence is questioning the wisdom of the decisions made by lawmakers," Marshall said.
Wise or not, lawmakers had the right to make those decisions.
The Wake County Board of Elections is the lone defendant in the case. Although the board didn't draw the maps, it is in charge of implementing them. So, a federal appeals court decided the board should be sued over them, rather than state lawmakers.
"I don't have the benefit of the General Assembly defending their districts," Marshall noted. And his clients "do not care what the districts are" but simply must be left to administer the 2016 elections.
Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and a lawyer representing the citizens suing to stop the districts, said the maps so violate principles of "one person, one vote" in order to favor Republicans, they are unconstitutional.
"You can't favor voters based on where they live," Earls told the court. "That's exactly what the one person, one vote criteria is mean to prevent."
In particular, she argued that claims they would lead to better representation for small towns and more closely connect schools to their school board members make little sense.
"If the legislation doesn't advance the stated goals, then it's arbitrary," she said.
Earls and her clients also focused in on a southeast Raleigh district that contains more than 50 percent African-American residents. She argued the evidence showed that race was the driving factor in building that district but that Wake County had a history of electing black policymakers without regard to race.
"You can't draw a districting plan where race is a predominant factor ... unless it serves a compelling government interest," she said.
Dever said he would take the arguments under advisement but did not offer a timeline on when he might rule.
Candidates for school board won't file to run until next summer. However, candidates for partisan races such as the board of county commissioners have until Monday at noon to file. Those running in two regional districts created by the redistricting plans could see their elections put on hold or otherwise affected by Dever's eventual ruling.