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General Assembly violated N.C. Constitution in drawing districts, court rules

A three-judge Superior Court panel agreed with the NAACP and other plaintiffs that the General Assembly violated the state constitution’s prohibition on changing legislative district boundaries in the middle of a decade.

In a ruling in NAACP v. Lewis released Friday, Nov. 2, the panel directed the General Assembly to fix the impermissible defects in the Wake County map by the end of the next legislative session, or by July 1, whichever is earlier, for use in the 2020 election cycle.

“Once again, a court has rebuked the North Carolina General Assembly, finding the legislature’s repeated acts of political gamesmanship in the redistricting process to be unconstitutional,” said Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice who argued the case for the plaintiffs.  

“For almost this entire decade, legislative leaders have done everything they can to avoid fair elections and accountability to the voters. This decision 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,” Riggs said in the written statement provided to Carolina Journal.

“This is an important victory for the NAACP as we fight to ensure that communities of color have a full opportunity to elect representatives who will protect their interests in state legislatures across the country” Bradford M. Berry, NAACP General Counsel, said in a written statement provided to CJ.

“Legislative leadership will review the court ruling in the next few weeks and decide the next steps. Obviously, I disagree with the decision and believe it will create voter uncertainty and confusion,” Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, said in a written statement to CJ. He is senior chairman of the House Select Committee on Redistricting, and is named as lead defendant in the case.

This case has its roots in the Covington v. North Carolina federal lawsuit. A panel of judges found 28 legislative districts unconstitutional because they were drawn with too much emphasis on race. In its efforts to comply with the court order, the Republican-led General Assembly changed all 11 Wake County House districts, even though only Districts 33 and 38 were cited by the Covington court.

The N.C. NAACP, League of Women Voters of North Carolina, Democracy North Carolina, the AFL-CIO-related North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute, and a number of individuals sued, claiming the map changes were excessive, especially regarding Wake County House Districts 36, 37, 40, and 41. Those districts are represented, respectively, by Republicans Nelson Dollar, and John Adcock, and Democrats Joe John, and Gale Adcock.

Arguments on the case were heard Sept. 29 by Superior Court Judges Paul Ridgeway (Wake County), Alma Hinton (Halifax County), and Joseph Crosswhite (Alexander and Iredell).

The case is complicated. Lawyers sparred in court over esoteric redistricting criteria and methods; prior court rulings and ongoing, related cases; state laws and state constitutional provisions; the appropriate hierarchy when federal and state laws clash; and whether the state court even has jurisdiction to rule against the legislative maps.

Legislative defendants argued shifting voters around to meet the federal court order on Districts 33 and 38 created ripple effects requiring alterations to Districts 36, 37, 40, and 41.

The plaintiffs claimed that was a bright-line violation of state law barring mid-decade changes to legislative districts except by court order. Those changes must await the next decennial census, they argued.

Judges agreed with the plaintiffs. In Friday’s decision, they said remapping House Districts 36, 37, 40, and 41 “was not necessary to comply with federal law and, as a result, the alteration of those House Districts in 2017 violated, and continues to violate, the State Constitution’s prohibition on mid-decade redistricting.”