Federal judge panel rules N.C. district maps unconstitutional

Judge Robert Gregory was appointed by President Bill Clinton and reappointed President George W. Bush

Judge Robert Gregory was appointed by President Bill Clinton and reappointed President George W. Bush

RALEIGH – A three judge panel in federal court ruled Friday that North Carolina’s congressional districts are drawn to favor race and therefore unconstitutional. While the district maps have been the subject of lawsuits for years, this decision deals the North Carolina primary election a huge blow Friday, with just 39 days until voters go to the polls. The ruling says that no congressional elections can be held until the maps are redrawn, setting a February 12th deadline for new maps. This means that there would be just two weeks to draw the maps – and absentee voting for March 15 primary elections has already opened. According to the State Board of Elections, thousands of ballots have already been mailed.

North Carolina's 1st Congressional District.

North Carolina’s 1st Congressional District.

In the decision, the judges focused specifically on the state’s 1st and 12th districts. The 1st Congressional District runs through the northern Piedmont to Durham and is currently represented by Democrat G.K. Butterfield. The 12th is Democrat Rep. Alma Adams’ district and runs along I-85 from Greensboro to Charlotte. Judge Robert Gregory said in the majority opinion that the districts’ lines violate the 14th amendment of equal protection.

“Laws that classify citizens based on race are constitutionally suspect and therefore subject to strict scrutiny; racially gerrymandered districting schemes are no different, even when adopted for benign purposes,” said Judge Gregory . “This does not mean that race can never play a role in redistricting. Legislatures are almost always cognizant of race when drawing district lines, and simply being aware of race poses no constitutional violation. Only when race is the “dominant and controlling” consideration in drawing district lines does strict scrutiny apply…. The Court finds that the plaintiffs have shown that race predominated in both CD 1 and CD 12 and that the defendants have failed to establish that its race-based redistricting satisfies strict scrutiny.”

North Carolina's 12th Congressional District.

North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District.

The lines were draw in 2011 in a congressional redistricting plan led by state lawmakers. The North Carolina Supreme Court has twice ruled in favor of the maps and against groups like the NAACP, who argued that they put black voters into congressional pockets to limit their influence, calling them ‘apartheid’ voting districts. Republicans had been arguing before the court that the plan was designed to protect heavily minority districts in accordance with the federal Voting Rights Act.

“Today’s decision marks an important step towards ensuring the integrity of North Carolina’s democratic process.” said N.C. Democratic Party chair Patsy Keever in a statement. ” It’s clear that Republicans in Raleigh have sought to suppress the vote of those with whom they disagree and rig the electoral process  through partisan gerrymandering. This decision is welcome news that should begin to restore basic fairness to North Carolina’s congressional elections.”

Sen. Bob Rucho (R-Mecklenburg) and Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett), Chairmen of the House and Senate Redistricting Committees, indicated that the fight was far from over. They said this decision comes too close to the March primary and throws the system into chaos.

“We are surprised and disappointed by the trial court’s 11th-hour decision that throws an election already underway into turmoil,” they said in a joint statement. “Should this decision be allowed to stand, North Carolina voters will no longer know how or when they will get to cast their primary ballots in the presidential, gubernatorial, congressional and legislative elections. And thousands of absentee voters may have already cast ballots that could be tossed out. This decision could do far more to disenfranchise North Carolina voters than anything alleged in this case. We are confident our state Supreme Court made the right decision when it upheld the maps drawn by the General Assembly and approved by the Obama Justice Department, and we will move swiftly to appeal this decision.”

The judges’ order for new maps requires a special session of the General Assembly to be called to re-draw the districts. An appeal of Friday’s decision would go to the U.S. Supreme Court. In November, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would hear a Virginia redistricting case that followed a similar path.