Political notebook: U.S. Supreme Court again sides with plaintiffs in racial gerrymandering challenge

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 2, 2018

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous, “per curiam” decision Thursday largely affirming a lower court’s ruling in North Carolina v. Covington.

The decision upheld most of the court-ordered General Assembly districting maps with some districts redrawn by a Special Master.

North Carolina v. Covington is a battle that’s been ongoing since 2015, when North Carolina residents sued the state, leaders of the legislative redistricting committee, and the state board of elections. The suit contended that Republican lawmakers had relied too heavily on race when drawing General Assembly district in 2011.

In August 2016, the maps were unanimously found to contain 28 racial gerrymanders among its state House and Senate districts, weakening the influence of black voters. State lawmakers appealed this decision to the Supreme Court that November.

While waiting for the case to be heard, North Carolina’s Middle District Court ordered the North Carolina General Assembly to redraw legislative maps by Sept. 1, 2017, in order to remedy the unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. The legislature adopted new maps on Aug. 30, 2017.

Plaintiffs filed objections to the newly drawn district plans and a hearing was held in front of a three-judge panel in the Middle District of North Carolina on Oct. 12, 2017.

On Oct. 26, 2017, the federal panel announced its intention to appoint Dr. Nathaniel Persily to the position of “Special Master.”

As Special Master, Persily reviewed the newly adopted redistricting plan and made recommendations to ensure compliance with state and federal law in nine districts where the court believed the remedial plan was inadequate or otherwise illegal.

His appointment became official on Nov. 1, 2017.

Persily issued draft recommended changes to the state’s redistricting plan on Nov. 13 that year and solicited feedback from the plaintiffs and defendants. Both submitted comments.

Meeting the deadline set by the three-judge panel, Persily submitted his final set of recommendations to the district court December of last year.

The three-judge panel heard arguments from the plaintiffs and defendants regarding the Special Master’s plan in January, before ordering the Special Master’s recommendations be incorporated into the state’s state legislative redistricting plan.

In February, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block the district court’s order. The court did stay revisions to a small number of districts that violate the state constitution.

Thursday’s decision upheld redrawn districts but held that the lower court did not need to determine whether other districts complied with the state constitution.

Allison Riggs, Senior Voting Rights Attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, praised the plaintiffs’ dedication in the long battle.

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice, along with the Poyner Spruill law firm, represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Thanks to them, she said, voters in North Carolina will finally be able to vote in state legislative districts drawn without unconstitutional racial discrimination.

“The order from the Supreme Court … sends the message loud and clear that discrimination, even if hidden under a self-proclaimed veil of ignorance, will not be tolerated in the redistricting process,” she said. “We’re glad to see the district court’s careful, well-documented findings on this front affirmed.”

The districts redrawn by the Special Master to correct racial gerrymandering concerns are in effect for the 2018 state legislative elections.

“While it’s unfortunate that this process has dragged on for almost the entirety of the decade — to the great detriment of voters in this state — we’re gratified to be vindicated once again,” said Riggs. “… We have finally achieved our clients’ goals for this litigation: to eradicate the blatantly unconstitutional sorting of voters by race in North Carolina’s state legislative districts.”

N.C. Sen. Dan Barrett, R-34, visits Boys State

On June 18, North Carolina Sen. Dan Barrett, R-34, participated in a forum and debate at the 2018 American Legion Boys State.

Held at Catawba College, this forum was part of a week long program and course of instruction designed to teach young men about state government and how it works.

Nearly 300 young men from across North Carolina were in attendance.

Barrett fielded questions from students on a wide variety of state and national political topics and participated in a debate with a representative of the opposing party.

“I was very impressed by this group of young leaders,” Barrett said. “They asked excellent questions and were very knowledgeable about important issues facing our state and nation.”