By Anne Blythe
Twelve months after hearing arguments in the case, the N.C. Supreme Court issued a ruling Friday upholding the Republican-led redrawing of state congressional and legislative districts in 2011.
But the NAACP and other organizations that challenged the maps quickly announced plans to continue their legal battle against districts they contend are blatant racial gerrymandering intended to weaken the African-American vote.
“It is certainly regrettable that the North Carolina Supreme Court has sanctioned the use of race bias by the North Carolina General Assembly in an unlawful effort to promote and protect the political interests of extremist elements of the Republican Party,” Irving Joyner, a Durham attorney representing the NAACP, said Friday. “This decision is contrary to any political redistricting effort that the United States Supreme Court has ever approved.”
With that in mind, lawyers for the voter rights organizations plan to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take up their case.
Though it is not a given that the nation highest court will review the North Carolina maps, attorneys behind the appeal point out that the U.S. justices heard arguments last month in an Alabama case with similar claims.
In the case brought by the Alabama Black Legislative Caucus against the state of Alabama, African-American voters contended that Alabama misinterpreted the Voting Rights Act and unconstitutionally packed them into districts that illegally limited their power.
The U.S. Supreme Court is also considering whether to hear an appeal of a Virginia case in which a federal district court ruled that Virginia’s congressional map was an unconstitutional gerrymander and needed to be redrawn by 2015.
Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and a lead attorney for the NAACP, said the legal issues in the North Carolina case dovetail with the Virginia and Alabama cases.
“Our court misinterpreted federal law,” Earls said.
North Carolina Republican leaders who shepherded the redrawing of this state’s congressional and legislative districts after the 2010 census lauded the N.C. Supreme Court’s ruling Friday.
‘Fair and legal’
State Rep. David Lewis and State Sen. Bob Rucho, chairmen of the legislative committees that oversaw the drawing of the 2011 redistricting maps, released a statement describing the decision as confirmation “that our redistricting process and maps are what we have said all along: fair and legal.”
“We are proud to have broken the cycle set by previous legislatures that repeatedly saw their maps tossed out by the courts as illegal,” Lewis and Rucho said in their joint statement. “We hope today’s decision will finally put to rest the hyper-partisan rhetoric parroted by our opponents out of political spite.”
At issue was whether the districts created in 2011 will be used through 2020.
Democratic voters and others challenging the boundaries argue that 30 legislative and congressional districts were designed to weaken the overall influence of North Carolina’s black voters, a group that traditionally casts ballots for Democrats.
Republicans have argued in court hearings during the past two years that they followed the law when creating the maps. The U.S. Justice Department, whose leadership was appointed by Democratic President Barack Obama, “pre-cleared” them under a procedure laid out by the Voting Rights Act.
The Justice Department officials that reviewed the plans said they did not hurt the ability of minorities to elect their candidates of choice in the districts being challenged.
The map challengers contend, though, that the shepherds of redistricting packed black voters into districts where they had already been successful in electing their candidates of choice despite being in the minority.
Politics or race?
The courts have allowed political parties to draw districts for political advantage but prohibit racial gerrymandering.
In July 2013, three Superior Court judges ruled unanimously in favor of the North Carolina mapmakers, concluding that although race was considered in the design of districts, it was done to comply with the Voting Rights Act.
The challengers appealed that decision to the N.C. Supreme Court. They argued that the Superior Court judges misunderstood the Voting Rights Act instructions for what are called “majority-minority districts,” or districts in which enough people of color must be in the voting population to elect their candidate of choice.
If minority voters already are electing their candidates of choice, and often those candidates are Democrats, attorneys for the challengers argue that districts do not have to be redrawn. They argue that remapping cannot dilute the black vote, and they contend that is what the 2011 districts do by packing more African-American voters into too few North Carolina legislative and U.S. congressional districts.
“It is simply wrong for the legislature to carve up this state on the basis of race in these circumstances.” Earls, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice director, added.
Two N.C. Supreme Court justices – Cheri Beasley and Robin Hudson, both Democrats – issued a dissenting opinion in the case.
Justice Robert N. “Bob” Hunter Jr., who was appointed to the N.C. Supreme Court this fall, months after the January arguments, did not participate in the ruling, according to court documents.
Critics of the decision plan to highlight their reasoning as they push for a hearing at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Brenda Rogers of the League of Women Voters said, “This is a disappointing development, but we will not give up in our fight to ensure that redistricting in this state is conducted in a fair and legal way.”
Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, an organization that has lobbied for redistricting reform, issued a statement arguing for the end of partisan voting maps.
“North Carolina’s system of drawing voting maps continues to be highly dysfunctional and deeply partisan,” Phillips said. “Both political parties have used the power of redistricting to craft voting maps that favor their own side, depriving voters of a real choice on Election Day and leading to costly battles in the courts.
“Since 1980, there have been nearly three dozen lawsuits surrounding the way our state’s voting maps are drawn. Fortunately, North Carolina can enact sensible, bipartisan reform that would make redistricting truly fair and impartial, protecting the right of voters to have a voice in who represents them.”