Judges: 4 House dis­tricts in NC break re­dis­trict­ing ban

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Local - BY GARY D. ROBERTSON

More re­draw­ing of North Carolina leg­isla­tive bound­aries would be re­quired next year if Fri­day’s rul­ing by state judges strik­ing down four state House dis­tricts stands.

A three-judge panel on Fri­day agreed with ad­vo­cacy groups and vot­ers that sev­eral al­ter­ations to Wake County dis­tricts last year vi­o­lated North Carolina’s con­sti­tu­tional pro­hi­bi­tion against mid-decade re­dis­trict­ing.

The four dis­tricts are be­ing used in Tues­day’s elec­tion, but the rul­ing won’t stop those races and could be ap­pealed.

In their unan­i­mous de­ci­sion, the trial court judges told Repub­li­can mapmakers to fix the prob­lems and ap­prove a new Wake County House map by July 1 — or sooner if next year’s leg­isla­tive ses­sion ends be­fore that date — for use in 2020 elec­tions.

The plain­tiffs want those dis­tricts re­turned to how they were ini­tially drawn in 2011. Their at­tor­neys ar­gued Repub­li­cans changed three of the four dis­tricts to im­prove chances for Repub­li­can elec­tion vic­to­ries this fall. The seats are im­por­tant to Democrats try­ing to end the GOP’s ve­to­proof ma­jor­ity in the cham­ber.

Pro­vi­sions in the state con­sti­tu­tion say state leg­isla­tive dis­tricts “shall re­main unal­tered” un­til the re­lease of each dec- ade’s cen­sus num­bers. There are ex­cep­tions when courts or­der changes, as they have this decade.

Maps for leg­isla­tive and con­gres­sional dis­tricts drawn by the GOP-con­trolled Gen­eral Assem­bly have been lit­i­gated for most of the decade.

Con­gres­sional bound­aries orig­i­nally were struck down for racial ger­ry­man­der­ing, then later on claims of ex­ces­sive po­lit­i­cal bias. The U.S. Supreme Court re­ceived briefs this week from groups ask­ing that they hear par­ti­san ger­ry­man­der­ing claims.

Fri­day’s rul­ing “brings us closer to the day that, for the first time this decade, the voice of the vot­ers and not politi­cians’ il­le­gal ma­nip­u­la­tions will de­ter­mine the out­come of elec­tions,” Al­li­son Riggs with the South­ern Coali­tion for So­cial Jus­tice, the plain­tiffs’ chief at­tor­ney, said in a re­lease.

The cur­rent lit­i­ga­tion orig­i­nates from a 2016 fed­eral court de­ci­sion throw­ing out nearly 30 leg­isla­tive dis­tricts in 2016. The leg­is­la­ture re­drew the lines in Au­gust 2017, mak­ing changes to most Wake County dis­tricts.

The same fed­eral court, with the help of an out­side ex­pert, later made more ed­its but said GOP law­mak­ers made al­ter­ations be­yond what was re­quired in Meck­len­burg and Wake coun­ties, cit­ing the state pro­hi­bi­tion. But the U.S. Supreme Court said last June the lower court wasn’t sup­posed to rule on those ques­tions, and al­lowed the GOP’s ad­di­tional changes in the two coun­ties to re­main.

Mean­while, the state NAACP, League of Women Vot­ers, other groups and vot­ers sued in state court over the four Wake dis­tricts — the case be­fore Su­pe­rior Court Judges Paul Ridge­way, Joseph Cross­white and Alma Hin­ton.

Their rul­ing Fri­day de- clared the con­fig­u­ra­tion of Wake County House dis­tricts vi­o­lated the state con­sti­tu­tion be­cause al­ter­ing Dis­tricts 36, 37, 40 and 41 “was not nec­es­sary to com­ply with fed­eral law.”

Rep. David Lewis, a Har­nett County Repub­li­can and one of the de­fen­dants, said Fri­day leg­isla­tive lead­er­ship will review the de­ci­sion in the com­ing weeks and de­cide next steps. An ap­peal would go to the state Supreme Court.

“I dis­agree with the de­ci­sion and be­lieve it will cre­ate voter un­cer­tainty and con­fu­sion,” Lewis said in a text.

Dur­ing a Septem­ber court hear­ing, the leg­is­la­tors’ lawyer cited a pre­vi­ous le­gal opin­ion sug­gest­ing the leg­is­la­ture could re­draw dis­tricts that were “di­rectly and in­di­rectly af­fected” by a court de­ci­sion.

CON­GRES­SIONAL BOUND­ARIES ORIG­I­NALLY WERE STRUCK DOWN FOR RACIAL GER­RY­MAN­DER­ING, THEN LATER ON CLAIMS OF EX­CES­SIVE PO­LIT­I­CAL BIAS.

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