News: CJ Exclusives

N.C. Attorneys Say Redistricting Lawsuit Puts State in Double Jeopardy

Brief filed with court argues plaintiffs had no standing to sue

Attorneys representing the state of North Carolina in the Harris v. McCrory lawsuit — in which earlier this month a three-judge federal district court panel threw out the congressional districts drawn in 2011, resulting in a delay in the state’s  congressional primary — claim in court documents that the plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit have no legal grounds to sue.

In a legal brief filed in October and February known as “findings of fact and conclusions of law,” the state’s attorneys argue that the Harris v. McCrory case, in essence, placed North Carolina in double jeopardy.

“The state has … raised a defense based on the legal doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel. These closely related doctrines ensure that, once a court has rendered final judgment in a case, the case is closed,” said Jon Guze, director of legal studies at the John Locke Foundation.

Losing parties may appeal to a higher court, “but they may not simply file a new complaint and go to court again in the hope of getting a better result,” Guze said.

A three-judge U.S. District Court panel ruled in early February that the 1st and 12th congressional districts violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment because the state relied too heavily on race in reformatting the electoral maps.

The state denies that conclusion, and has an appeal pending. In the meantime, the General Assembly complied with the district court order by creating new and markedly different congressional maps, reopening the filing period to run for Congress, and pushing the congressional primary back to June 7.

“Res judicata bars relitigation of the same matter by the same parties. Collateral estoppel bars relitigation of a particular issue or fact,” Guze said. “The latter means that, even if one of the parties files a new lawsuit involving new issues and facts, the previous findings cannot be contested.”

According to the state’s attorneys, those legal doctrines apply in Harris v. McCrory because the same plaintiffs were involved in the unsuccessful Dickson v. Rucho suit. In that case the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the legislative and congressional districts drawn by the 2011 session of the General Assembly were constitutional.

In contrast to the federal district court in the Harris case, in Dixon the N.C. Supreme Court ruled that the N.C. Court of Appeals “applied traditional and permissible redistricting principles to achieve partisan advantage and that no constitutional violations resulted.”

Because of that decision, the state’s attorneys wrote in their legal pleadings, the Harris plaintiffs’ claims “should be dismissed” because they are members of organizations that already sued the state on the same grounds and lost in the Dickson case, and are bound by the judgment of the state court.

David Harris of Durham, who lives in the 1st District, Christine Bowser, a 12th District voter of Mecklenburg County, and Samuel Love are the Harris plaintiffs.

According to the state’s attorneys, facts in the case showed Democratic Party officials recruited Harris and Bowser to file suit. Neither is paying any attorneys’ fees or costs associated with the Harris case, neither could state any harm caused to them by the redistricting, and neither of them saw the complaint before it was filed.

Harris and Bowser are members of the North Carolina NAACP. Additionally, Bowser is a member of Democracy North Carolina, and made financial contributions to the League of Women Voters. All three of those organizations were plaintiffs in the Dickson case.

According to the state’s attorneys, “Where an association is a party to litigation, federal courts have held that members of the association are precluded … from re-litigating claims or issues raised in previous actions by an association in which they are a member.” They cited numerous case law precedents supporting their claims.

“Plaintiffs have produced no evidence that the NC NAACP failed to adequately represent their interests when it asserted the same claims in Dickson” with respect to how the 1st and 12th congressional districts were drawn.

“Indeed, the NC NAACP’s standing in Dickson was based on its contention that it was acting in a representative capacity by representing the interests of its members,” the state’s legal brief said.

“Unless the lawyers representing Mr. Harris and Ms. Bowser can successfully challenge one or more of those claims, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Middle District of North Carolina will probably agree with the state that, ‘Allowing plaintiffs to avoid being bound by the state court’s judgment is contrary to law and opens the door for endless legal challenges to the districts at issue here,’ ” Guze said.

Irving Joyner, a North Carolina Central University professor of law, holds a contrary view.

“There isn’t a factual or legal basis which will support this claim,” Joyner said.

“The plaintiffs brought suit on their own behalf, and not as a representative of the NC NAACP. The NC NAACP was not involved in the plaintiffs’ independent decisions to pursue this litigation. The state has no evidence which is contrary to this fact,” Joyner said.

Nor are there any facts the Harris case was “coordinated with, condoned by or instigated by the NC NAACP,” Joyner said. “The state makes this suggestion, but suggestion has never been deemed to be relevant [in the absence of evidence]. This is a case which should be decided on its merits.”

Joyner said the NAACP has thousands of members in North Carolina. Membership does not determine the rights of an individual to seek legal redress in either state or federal court.

“The state is grasping at straws on this point,” Joyner said.

The NC NAACP supports the results of the Harris litigation because it allowed the federal court to apply the relevant legal precedents that guide voting rights cases correctly, he said.

“The North Carolina courts simply got it wrong in its understanding and application of that law,” Joyner said.