Judges rule 4 NC House districts break redistricting ban

Published 5:59 pm Friday, November 2, 2018

By Gary D. Robertson

Associated Press

RALEIGH — 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 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 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 veto-proof majority in the chamber.

Provisions in the state constitution say state legislative districts “shall remain unaltered” until the release of each decade’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,” said Allison Riggs with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, the plaintiffs’ chief attorney, in a news 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 declared 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 its 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 message.

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.