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North Carolina legislative remap challenges still in court

September 28, 2018

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Court arguments on General Assembly district lines that Republican legislators originally approved seven years ago have yet to be exhausted as state judges Friday weighed whether lines for several House seats should revert to how they were drawn in 2011.

At issue are provisions in North Carolina’s constitution that say state legislative districts “shall remain unaltered” until the release of each decade’s census numbers. There are exceptions to this mid-decade redistricting ban when courts order changes, as they have in the 2010s.

The U.S. Supreme Court said in June that a lower federal court went too far in ruling 2017 map changes in Mecklenburg and Wake counties violated the state constitution’s prohibition of mid-decade redistricting because it wasn’t the lower court’s job to decide. The alterations were part of a larger remap by the General Assembly and an outside expert after the same lower court had declared nearly 30 House and Senate districts were illegal racial gerrymanders.

Before the justices ruled, the state NAACP, League of Women Voters, other groups and voters had already sued in state court saying four Wake state House districts violated the mid-decade prohibition. They wanted the districts returned to their 2011 shapes.

Allison Riggs, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told the state judges Friday that altering the Wake districts adjoining two districts that had been struck down for racial bias was proper, but the four other districts weren’t unlawful and should have been left alone. Her clients argue that Republicans changed three of the four districts to improve chances for Republican election victories this fall.

The three-judge panel didn’t rule immediately from the bench after two hours of oral arguments. The case won’t affect this fall’s election but could alter the map in 2020, a year before the next round of redistricting begins based on census figures.

Riggs told the panel that past state redistricting cases show the mid-decade prohibition “must be enforced to the maximum extent possible,” provided it doesn’t contradict federal law.

“You don’t have to change every district in the county to correct the racial gerrymander” found by federal judges in the two districts, Riggs told the state judges.

Phil Strach, a lawyer for Republican mapmakers, told the judges redrawing more Wake districts was one way to comply with both the federal court ruling that found the 28 racially gerrymandered districts and the prohibition. Strach cited a previous court opinion suggesting the legislature could redraw districts that were “directly and indirectly affected” by a court decision.

“There’s a menu of options and a menu of possible reasonable options, and this court is bound to accept the one that the legislature used as reasonable,” Strach said.

Strach said mapmakers in 2011 drew the two Wake County House districts that contained black voting-age majorities first, followed by the others. So when those two districts were struck down, he said, they had a “ripple effect” on the rest of the county districts. But Riggs mentioned other proposed maps that showed the racial gerrymanders could be corrected without making more changes.

The judges already have hinted at their inclination toward those who sued. In April, when the panel declined to prevent the four districts from being used in the November elections because it was too close to the May primary, the judges wrote that the plaintiffs nonetheless had “demonstrated a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits of their claims.”

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