Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in mid-January could bolster the cause of North Carolina Republicans taxed with defending a redistricting plan from a lawsuit by Democrats and civil rights groups.
Seen as a victory for states’ rights, the high court’s decision, Perry v. Perez (PDF download), reverses steps by a federal court in San Antonio in November to rewrite the Texas legislature’s maps, which favored Republicans heavily. The Supreme Court directed the judicial panel to review the case again and produce maps that better take into account the intent of the GOP-controlled Texas legislature.
“To the extent the District Court exceed its mission to draw interim maps that do not violate the Constitution or the Voting Rights Act, and substituted its own concept of ‘the interests of the citizens of Texas,’ the court erred,” the Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous, unsigned opinion.
Similar to the lawsuit in North Carolina, the Texas suit claimed that Republicans in the legislature illegally diluted the voting power of black and Latino residents. The politics in Texas also are the same: Democrats angry over a Republican plan that hampers their party’s electoral fortunes.
Legal experts say that the case’s impact could reach to the Tar Heel State, where Democrats and Republicans are locked in their own redistricting war.
The Supreme Court’s decision “confirms that the starting point for a court drawing the maps would be the map crafted by the N.C. General Assembly,” said Jeanette Doran, executive director and chief legal counsel for the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law.
In Texas, the federal court threw out the legislature’s maps and started from scratch, Doran said. “If we were in a situation where we had to have an interim map,” the Texas decision would have an impact, she said.
The need for an interim map cropped up after the last round of redistricting a decade ago. In 2001, the Democratic-run General Assembly passed the first hurdle — gaining Justice Department preclearance for its maps — but failed the second hurdle when a state court struck down the plan. A retooled version of the maps also failed in court, which made room for a district court judge to enforce his own district boundaries for the primary and general election in 2002.
The same scenario potentially could arise this year. In November, the U.S. Justice Department precleared the new maps, determining that the plan didn’t run afoul of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a law meant to protect the interests of minority citizens.
The N.C. legislature approved the new district boundaries — which reflect population shifts documented in the 2010 Census — along party lines last summer.
Elections on schedule
The Supreme Court’s decision came on the same day — Jan. 20 — that a three-judge panel in North Carolina declined to grant a preliminary injunction postponing the state’s primary this spring. Foes of the Republican-crafted redistricting plan had sought the injunction while their lawsuit — which claims that the new boundaries racially gerrymander and split precincts unnecessarily — proceeds.
Under the present schedule, the state’s primary is May 8, and a runoff election, if needed, is June 26. The motion filed by Democrats and civil rights groups called for the primary and runoff to be deferred two months. The first primary would be help July 10, and a runoff Aug. 28.
A delay in the schedule would have thrown a curve ball to candidates for state and federal office, many of whom already have announced their intention of running. Filing for candidates opens Feb. 13 and ends two weeks later.
“The court is not persuaded that a delay of the primaries … will have any meaningful, practical value or materially aid in protecting the rights asserted by the plaintiffs in the course of this litigation,” said Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway at the hearing Jan. 20.
Ridgeway added that the ruling should not be taken as addressing the merits of the case, but only the technical consideration of a delayed primary.
At press time, plaintiffs in the case hadn’t confirmed whether they would appeal the judges’ decision to the state Supreme Court.
Elected officials on both sides of the aisle were quick to chime in. “While litigation regarding redistricting will continue to be handled by the legal system, today’s decision ensures that no practical impact will be had upon the timing of candidate filing, primary elections, or the general election in November,” said Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, senior chairman of the House Redistricting Committee, in a statement released Jan. 20.
“These fair, legal and competitive maps once again withstood legal and political scrutiny,” said Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, in a statement the same day. “Today’s decision ensures our primary elections will continue as scheduled, and it lifts a cloud of uncertainty from the elections process. This is an important victory for the voters of North Carolina.”
Legislative Democrats took a different line. “We are encouraged about our ultimate success in this litigation based on the judges’ positive comments about the issues we raised,” said House Minority Leader Joe Hackey, D-Orange, and Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, in a joint statement. “Still, we are disappointed they decided not to delay the primary election while they consider our case. We continue to believe the panel will ultimately agree this plan re-segregates North Carolina.”
David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.