Local News

Primary Could Be As Late As September After Court Rules N.C. Legislative District Plan Unconstitutional

Posted May 1, 2002 6:50 a.m. EDT

— The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that new House and Senate district plans violate the state constitution.

The court handed down an unusual 4-2-1 decision, finding that new legislative districts approved last year by the General Assembly violate a provision of the constitution that prohibits counties from being split.

The matter will now head back to Johnston County Superior Court where Judge Knox Jenkins will determine whether lawmakers have time to redraw the district maps. If he decides they do not have the time, he will draw them himself.

Lawmakers say they must make the time.

"As I understand [it], the state is going to have to come back, the legislature is going to have to come back, and try to redraw all single member districts without crossing county lines, where practical," said Mickey Michaux.

"It says, in a sense, that the Democrats are going to have to go back and draw the districts and be fair about it," said Frank Mitchell. "I know that they're upset with that, but we felt like we were right all along with our lawsuit, and we've been anxiously awaiting this day, and so we're ready to help them draw the districts the way they ought to be, when we come back in session."

However, the court's majority said a remedy -- large, multi-member districts proposed by Republicans legislators who challenged the plan -- would violate federal protections for minority voters and proportional representation.

Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake the Third wrote for the majority. He said other provisions in the state constitution also would prohibit the solution proposed by the Republican plaintiffs.

Lake and three of the four other Republicans on the court made up the majority. Two Democrats - Sarah Parker and G.K. Butterfield - dissented.

Republican Justice Bob Orr agreed that the new districts approved at the behest of Democratic leaders in the Legislature are unconstitutional, but disagreed with some of the majority's findings. He also said their remedy, forcing a single member district in counties whose population would allow one House or Senate member, goes too far.

Parker and Butterfield said a 1982 federal court ruling had shown that the whole-county provision is essentially unenforceable. In their dissents, they cited the Voting Rights Act and requirements for proportional representation as reasons the provision can't be enforced.

The new House plan divides 70 of North Carolina's 100 counties to form 112 districts. The Senate map divides 51 counties to establish 46 districts.