NC lawyers want redistricting challenges dismissed

Posted January 12, 2012 4:01 a.m. EST
Updated January 12, 2012 6:37 p.m. EST

— The legal fight over North Carolina's new boundaries for General Assembly and congressional districts returned to court Thursday as attorneys for the state attempted to persuade judges that challenges to the maps should be thrown out.

A three-judge panel held a 3½-hour hearing in Raleigh Thursday afternoon for arguments on the state's request to dismiss a pair of lawsuits filed by dozens of Democratic elected officials, voters and advocacy groups.

They reached no decision, however, and scheduled another hearing for Jan. 20.

The lawsuits allege the maps are unlawful because they scoop up black voters into districts to reduce their overall political power and that boundaries cross too many county lines. The lawsuits' authors want judges to block the maps from being used in the 2012 elections.

Lawyers for the state and legislative leaders say the maps comply with state and federal law and rulings.

Alec Peters of the state Attorney General's Office said the groups challenging the maps "misunderstand and misapply" the law.

“There is no case that says a plaintiff has a right to an undivided precinct,” Peters told the judges. “They’re essentially arguing that (splitting precincts) is a bad idea.”

Thomas Farr, an attorney for Republican lawmakers, also dismissed the lawsuit’s legal merit.

“This case comes down to, ‘We don’t think these plans are fair.’ That’s not a basis for a constitutional violation,” Farr said.

In court documents filed Monday, critics of the maps asked the judges to delay the 2012 primary elections. The group says no election should be held under the new maps until judges decide if they are legal.

NAACP attorney Anita Earls called the voting maps a "racial gerrymander," saying they "turn the Voting Rights Act on its head."

According to the lawsuit, the maps are flawed in three ways.

First, plaintiffs say, the new districts split more counties than is necessary, which they say is a violation of the state constitution as affirmed by a previous North Carolina Supreme Court ruling in a 2002 redistricting case.

Second, they split too many precincts. According to the lawsuit, the House map splits 395 voting precincts, containing almost 1.9 million people, which amounts to 19.5 percent of the state’s entire population. The Senate maps splits 257 precincts, containing more than 1.3 million people.

Thirty-six percent of black voters live in a split precinct, compared with 23 percent of white voters, Earls said.

“Those voters won’t even be able to tell what district they live in,” she said, citing “increased difficulty in participating in the political process.”

Alternative plans submitted by Democrats would have split 129 precincts in the House and six in the Senate.

Third, the lawsuit says, the new maps “pack” higher numbers of minority voters into some districts to reduce their influence in surrounding areas. According to the plaintiffs, more than half the state’s black voters are packed into just three of the state’s 13 congressional districts, 10 of the 50 Senate districts and 25 of the 120 House districts.

Republican mapmakers say the Voting Rights Act requires them to create “majority-minority” districts, where more than 50 percent of voters are minorities, wherever possible as a way to ensure minority voters can elect the candidate they choose. But Democrats say Republicans have twisted the intent of the law by adding minority voters to districts that already typically elect minority representation.

Most districts have at least two of the three problems above, the lawsuit contends.

The primary is scheduled to take place May 8, but some want it delayed until July 10 while judges sort out the legal issues.