Federal judges: Racially tainted General Assembly districts must be redrawn

A three-judge panel has found that lawmakers unconstitutionally relied on race when they drew state House and Senate maps.

Posted Updated
Voting map, redistricting
Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — Lawmakers unconstitutionally used race when they drew legislative boundaries for state House and state Senate members in 2011, a panel of three federal district court judges ruled Thursday afternoon.

"Therefore, we hereby order the North Carolina General Assembly to draw remedial districts in their next legislative session to correct the constitutional deficiencies in the Enacted Plans," the court wrote.

However, this year's election will be unaffected.

"We regrettably conclude that due to the mechanics of state and federal election requirements, there is insufficient time, at this late date, for: the General Assembly to draw and enact remedial districts; this Court to review the remedial plan; the state to hold candidate filing and primaries for the remedial districts; absentee ballots to be generated as required by statute; and for general elections to still take place as scheduled in November 2016," the three judge panel of North Carolina's federal Middle District wrote.

That means, when voters go to the polls, they will be making their choices for candidates running in legislative districts that were ruled to be unconstitutional. The court has ordered the next General Assembly, which will take office in 2017, to redraw the maps.

"We are disappointed in the district court's opinion," Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, and Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, who led the legislature's map-drawing efforts, said of the decision.

They pointed out that President Barack Obama's Justice Department signed off on the maps before they were employed.

"However, we are relieved for voters that the district court did not disrupt the current election that is already underway. Our attorneys are currently reviewing today’s ruling and evaluating next steps," they said.

From a purely political standpoint, Thursday's court decision could have sweeping implications. If a new map allows Democrats to more closely compete in the 2018 and 2020 elections, it would give them an opening to challenge Republicans for control of the House and the Senate. That could give them a greater say in everything from writing budgets and setting social policy to establishing congressional districts maps.

'One of the most bizarre and sprawling districts'

The plaintiffs in this case were a group of individuals aided by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and other groups. In one of the case's great ironies, they argued that Republicans over-applied the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The federal law, they said, was meant to protect minority voting strength but in this case was used to pack, stack and crack voting blocs to partisan advantage.

The Voting Rights Act continues to be necessary, argues Anita Earls, executive director of the coalition, "but should not be used to pack black voters or minimize their influence in the political process," adding that lawmakers had created "a recipe for permanent racial segregation.”

There are 120 state House districts and 50 state Senate districts. The court found that 28 of those districts were illegal racial gerrymanders. In practice, that will require both the House and the Senate maps to be entirely redrawn.

"Visually, House District 48 is one of the most bizarre and sprawling districts in the Enacted House Plan," the court wrote, referencing the district represented by Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland. "The district is located in portions of Hoke, Robeson, Scotland, and Richmond Counties. The base of the district is a narrow strip of land along the border between North Carolina and South Carolina."

The court goes on to describe the district's three arms that reach out and grab pockets of Democratic voters.

Pierce laughed when he heard that description.

Despite gains in several districts, he said, it's likely Republicans will still have control of the House in 2017. That said, their majorities may not be as big, and they will be under intense scrutiny, Pierce said.

"They're going to have to really make the districts as fair as possible," he said. "There are just going to be too many eyes on it."

Pierce is unopposed this fall. That's in large part because his district is drawn in such a way that it's almost impossible that anyone other than a Democrat would win and so that blacks make up a preponderance of voters. By packing such voters into a handful of highly concentrated districts, Republicans ceded that territory to their political rivals but created many more districts where the GOP would have an advantage.

Asked what impact he thought the ruling might have on this fall's election, Rep. Gary Pendleton, R-Wake, said "None. A voter has never asked me about redistricting."

Pendleton said plenty of advocates for good-government organizations have approached him on the issue, but he said it was not top of mind for most voters.

"I still have people that are confused where the lines are," said Rep. Yvonne Holley, D-Wake.

One of the major criticisms of the legislative redistricting plan has been that lawmakers split precincts in neighborhoods, carving up territory to maximize partisan advantage but often creating difficult-to-decipher electoral abstractions.

Holley, Pierce, Pendleton and others all mentioned the possibility that this ruling could force lawmakers to think about turning the redistricting process over to an independent commission. While that idea has been floated over the years, it has never taken hold. Members of the state Senate have historically been particularly resistant to relinquishing their control of the map-making process.

"Once again, the courts have had to intervene against the legislature's unconstitutional gerrymandering," said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina. "Today's decision is yet more evidence that North Carolina clearly needs to establish an impartial redistricting process that puts voters ahead of partisan politics."

See the districts ruled unconstitutional

A panel of three district court judges declared 28 districts unconstitutional racial gerrymanders Aug. 11, 2016. See them all.


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