Voter redistricting plan reaches state Supreme Court
You can call the state Supreme Court the end of the line in state court for a challenge to the N.C. General Assembly’s 2011 redistricting plans, but don’t call it the last stop.
In Raleigh Monday, the seven justices of the North Carolina Supreme Court heard oral arguments challenging the GOP-drawn redistricting plan. Voting rights organizations are appealing a July decision by a special panel of three judges that ruled that the maps met constitutional requirements.
But with so much riding on the outcome of the case and with so many issues in it related to federal law, the case is likely to see further appeal.
Allison Riggs, an attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said Tuesday that depending on how the case is decided, either side could end up appealing in federal court.
Given how much both sides’ arguments rely on interpretations of federal law, Riggs said, a federal appeal is “appropriate and likely.”
She said one reason federal courts might take a hard look at the case is because a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling narrowed the use of racial criteria. The actions of the General Assembly, she said, moved in the opposite direction.
At Monday’s hearing, the attorneys for the coalition of voting rights groups said that the plans violated the state constitution by packing minority voters into compact districts, dividing more counties than necessary and splitting an unusually large number of precincts.
They also continued to argue that the GOP-led plan twisted Voting Rights Act requirements to protect minority voters for partisan advantage and violated the state constitution’s requirement that counties be kept whole.
“When all else is said and done,” attorney Edwin Speas said at the hearing, “the measure of compliance with the [state] constitution is whether this process has produced the fewest number of divided counties, and, in this case, it has not. Demonstrably, it has not.”
Attorneys defending the General Assembly’s work said that legal challenges to the state’s redistricting have failed to prove that the maps violate the state constitution.
Alec Peters, of the North Carolina Attorney General’s office, told the justices that the special panel that reviewed the case earlier this year heard the same arguments as those now before the Supreme Court and rejected them in their July opinion.
The plaintiffs, he said, “had failed to carry their heavy burden that duly enacted legislation was unconstitutional.”
“[The judges] properly recognized the difference between legal arguments that are there for the court to decide and political arguments that are there for the court of public opinion,” Peters said.
During the nearly two-hour session Monday, justices asked few questions. Justice Paul Newby — whose decision to not recuse himself from the case has been challenged because of connections between his contributors and a group that backed the GOP-redistricting effort — asked none.
Riggs said that for now it is unclear when the justice will rule on the case, but that it is not likely the court will issue an opinion close to the fall elections. This week, the state NAACP and Democracy NC, two plaintiffs in the case, sought to delay the timing of the 2014 primary while the court reviews the case.
“Hopefully, we’ll get a fairly quick answer,” Riggs said. “But they have thousands and thousands of pages in front of them, so ‘quick’ means we may have an opinion in a couple of months.”
Impact in WNC
Should the arguments against the redistricting plan win out, Riggs said the biggest impact would likely be seen in the most heavily manipulated districts in eastern and central parts of the state as well as Mecklenburg County.
But the ripple effect from that, along with requirements for more compact districts and keeping more counties whole, could have a significant impact in Western North Carolina, especially in areas like Asheville, which saw a large number of split precincts.
“It’s true that in the western part of the state there were less hijinks,” Riggs said. “But at least they would have to fix what they’ve done in Buncombe.”
Brent Laurenz, executive director of the North Carolina Center for Voter Education, said the biggest direct impact of the redistricting in Western North Carolina has been in moving a large part of Asheville out of the 11th Congressional District and into the 10th. The state House districts also mirrored plans elsewhere by concentrating traditional Democratic voters in already heavily Democratic districts.
“Overall, a lot of House districts have gone from competitive to relatively safe,” he said.
A successful challenge, he said, could change that, but Laurenz said the plaintiffs could have a difficult road given that the U.S. Department of Justice granted the plans pre-clearance and the state courts signed off on them.
“So far no court has stepped in to to say there’s a problem,” he said. “I’m not terribly sure we’ll see that.”