RALEIGH — Attorneys defending new North Carolina political boundaries that favor Republicans asked a panel of judges Thursday to throw out lawsuits challenging them on grounds of racial gerrymandering, arguing while the boundaries could be different, they comply with the new rules of redistricting.
The new General Assembly and congressional districts were challenged by dozens of voters, Democratic elected officials and advocacy groups who say the plans create two different classes of voters.
The consolidated lawsuits contend the GOP-penned maps violate the state and federal constitutions by needlessly bundling black voters in majority-minority districts to reduce their political power and split hundreds of voting precincts in the process, disproportionately affecting black citizens.
“They deserve better than this,” Anita Earls, an attorney representing those who sued in the fall and want to block the maps from being used in the 2012 election. “The state and federal constitutions provide them protections from the kinds of practices that are embodied in these redistricting plans. This is about creating a political structure that will allow all voters to participate equally in elections and the structure established by these plans doesn’t do that.”
Special Deputy Attorney General Alec Peters said lawmakers followed the guidelines set by the state Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court over the past decade in drawing the lines. Democrats and the group Earls works for submitted plans that don’t follow those rules while creating maps that don’t look too different from the maps enacted by the General Assembly last year, Peters contends.
“Their claims boil down really to a large allegation. (They) think the plans could have been done differently,” Peters told the panel, but “we submit to the court the maps show the plaintiffs misunderstand and misapply the laws that are applied in this case.”
The judges heard about three hours of arguments in a downtown Raleigh courtroom and didn’t immediately rule on the state’s motion to dismiss the pair of lawsuits now being tried together. Wake County Judge Paul Ridgeway said the panel would meet again Jan. 20 to hear the arguments of map opponents to stop the boundaries from being used while the litigation goes to trial and to push back the May 8 primary by two months.
The political stakes in the litigation are high. The GOP-penned maps could help the party extend its new majority in the Legislature and improve its chances for taking up to four more seats in Congress.
The lawsuits must be allowed to go on because the plaintiffs have offered valid claims for the judges to consider, said Eddie Speas, a Raleigh lawyer representing Democratic elected officials and voters who sued. The Legislature failed to act for the “good of the whole” as the state constitution mandates when drawing the maps, Speas said. The boundaries can’t be eliminated by voters simply by throwing out in November the incumbents who drew them because the maps, if upheld, have to be used through the 2020 elections, he said.
“The General Assembly’s got discretion in drawing, but it ends at the constitution,” Speas said. “It cannot violate the rights of the citizens when exercising its discretion to draw districts.”
Citing a case involving Pender County, Peters said the Legislature has a “safe harbor” from legal scrutiny on racial discrimination by creating districts whenever feasible in the state in which more than 50 percent of the voting-age population is black.
Republicans have argued recent court rulings don’t provide that safe harbor when forming districts that have black populations of between 40 and 50 percent. Democrats respond that so-called “influence” districts remain lawful in areas where racially polarized voting has waned and black and white voters have formed coalitions to elect their preferred candidate.
Tom Farr, a Raleigh lawyer representing legislative leaders who were sued, cautioned the judges that another three-judge panel in the Pender County case “accepted the political science that perhaps less than 50 percent was acceptable,” but it was flatly rejected by the state and U.S. supreme courts.
The groups challenging the maps cite the number of split voting precincts as proof the mapmakers were using race as the predominant factor in forming the maps. The proposed plans split 563 precincts that comprise a voting-age population of nearly 2 million. A black adult is 56 percent more likely to be in a split precinct than a non-Hispanic white adult, Earls said.
The plaintiffs have filed affidavits by local elections officials who say the split precincts will lead to more ballot versions at each voting location, creating potential confusion and making elections more difficult to administer. Peters said the plaintiffs haven’t cited a case where a court has determined voters have a right to undivided precincts.