North Carolina redistricting delay denied
on Feb 20, 2016 at 12:09 am
Without an explanation, the Supreme Court on Friday night left intact a lower court decision that had forced the North Carolina legislature to draw up a new election district map for congressional seats, to cure “racial gerrymandering” in two of its districts. There were no noted dissents from the order.
The Court acted within hours after it had been told that the legislature in a special session in Raleigh had approved a new plan for the two districts — 1 and 12 — that a three-judge district court had ruled unconstitutional as a result of “packing” more minority voters into those areas.
The Justices’ order was one of the first significant actions the Court had taken since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. An eight-member Court can deal effectively with such matters, at least when the Justices are not split four to four.
The new North Carolina districting plan enacted Friday specified that it would not go into effect if the Supreme Court had granted the request of the governor and state board of elections to postpone the district court’s order mandating a new map. With the Justices’ denial of the state’s challenge, the new map will be in effect for the primary election in the state — now set for June 7 under a separate law, also passed by the legislature Friday, setting aside an earlier plan for the primary on March 15.
The approaching date of the March primary was one factor that had led state officials to ask the Supreme Court to delay the district court ruling. The panel had given the lawmakers just two weeks — that is, until Friday — to come up with a remedy for the constitutional violation in the two districts.
For years, those two districts have been electing African-American candidates. District 1 is represented in the current Congress by Rep. George K. Butterfield, Jr., and District 12 by Rep. Alma S. Adams, both African-American Democrats.
At a time when District 1 had a population of voting-age African Americans of 47.76%, Rep. Butterfield won election in 2010 under a prior map with somewhat more than fifty-nine percent of the vote. Under the 2011 plan, however, with more minorities in his district (now at 52.65%), he won with more than seventy percent in both 2012 and 2014.
In District 12, another African-American, Mel Watt, who preceded Adams, won the 2010 election under a prior plan with 63.9% of the vote when African-Americans of voting age totaled 43.77%. Under the 2011 plan, with more minorities in the district (then, 50.66), he won reelection with 79.6% in 2012. In the 2014 election, Rep. Adams won election in that district with more than seventy-five percent of the vote.
Even though the results under the prior plan had indicated to the supporters of those candidates that their districts were already drawn in a way that assured that African-American voters could choose candidates of their preference, the 2011 plan that the district court struck down significantly increased the numbers of African-American voters in the two districts.
Legislative sponsors of the plan sought to justify the increased population of minorities in those areas by arguing that they needed to push up representation of minorities in those districts above fifty percent, to satisfy the federal Voting Rights Act. The district court, however, ruled earlier this month that this would not justify lines for those two districts when race was the predominant factor in dictating the boundaries of the new, oddly shaped districts.
Although prior Supreme Court precedents allow some use of racial factors in redistricting election boundaries, the Court has barred the use of race as the predominant factor, outranking any other political or practical considerations.
A voter from each of the North Carolina districts had challenged the increases in minority voters in a lawsuit filed in 2013, but the case did not move rapidly, and the 2011 plan was used in both the 2012 and 2014 elections.
With a trial set to begin in October of last year on the challenge, the legislature a month before had moved up the primary date from May 2016 to March 15. Opponents of that plan argued that the governor and legislature were seeking to lock in the 2011 plan for this year’s congressional elections.
The district court, after a trial, struck down the boundary lines of Districts 1 and 12 on February 5, leading state officials to ask the Supreme Court to postpone that decision, arguing that the process for holding the primary in March had already begun, and the state faced a chaotic situation if the 2011 plan were not allowed to remain in effect.
The Court got a reply from the challengers to the 2011 plan on three days ago, opposing delay of the lower court mandate for a new map. Then, earlier Friday, each side notified the Justices of the legislature’s new actions, leading to the release of the denial of the stay in late evening.
The Supreme Court’s action did not judge the constitutionality of the 2011 plan, or of the new replacement for it, focusing only on whether the Justices thought the state officials might win if they went forward with a formal appeal of the lower court decision.