North Carolina Supreme Court Disregards U.S. Supreme Court in Redistricting Case
The North Carolina Supreme Court, in a 4-3 vote, recently upheld the state’s redistricting map in a lawsuit alleging that the map discriminates against African American voters. The plaintiffs argued that the map intentionally dilutes the political power of black voters by packing them into a few districts.
One of the voters who challenged the North Carolina General Assembly’s map, Avie Lester, has volunteered for decades to register and transport voters in the black community in rural Person County, which is now grouped with urban areas in Durham. Lester told the courts that he worries that “minority voters may feel voting is pointless” under the maps drawn by the Republican-controlled legislature in 2011. Even though his former district did not contain a majority of black voters, Lester said that the black community “did have a great amount of influence on the candidates that have been elected in the past. Under the new maps, we … will have less influence on the outcome of the race.”
Before its most recent ruling, the North Carolina Supreme Court had already upheld the map. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, remanded the case back to the North Carolina Supreme Court after it struck down Alabama’s racially gerrymandered maps as unconstitutional in March 2015. When it upheld the maps this time, the North Carolina Supreme Court’s four-justice conservative majority essentially ignored the rules laid out in the Supreme Court’s Alabama decision.
The Alabama Legislature argued that because the Voting Rights Act of 1965, or VRA, states voters of color must have the ability to elect their preferred candidates, it could not reduce the percentage of black voters in the districts where they already had an overwhelming majority. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, rejected this “mechanically numerical view” of complying with the VRA. The Court noted that the VRA “does not require a covered jurisdiction to maintain a particular numerical minority percentage. It requires the jurisdiction to maintain a minority’s ability to elect a preferred candidate of choice.”
In North Carolina, the General Assembly admitted that it sought to create a percentage of “majority-minority” districts that matched black voters’ proportion of the state’s population. Then, legislators had these districts drawn to include a majority of black voters, effectively packing them into districts in a way that diluted their influence in neighboring districts. Like in Alabama, the legislators claimed that they did so in order to comply with the VRA.
In her dissenting opinion, Justice Cheri Beasley pointed out that North Carolina’s approach to redistricting was exactly the kind of numerical approach that the U.S. Supreme Court rejected in Alabama. Instead, she argued, the justices should have begun the process by asking how to ensure that black voters can elect their “candidates of choice” under the VRA, as the U.S. Supreme Court instructed. Justice Beasley wrote that it violates the Constitution to draw district lines based on race when it is not necessary to comply with the VRA and concluded that the General Assembly’s approach gives it “the power to determine which of the voters in the minority group will be represented by a candidate of their choice, and which voters will not.”
Justice Beasley also criticized the conservative majority for failing to send the case back to the trial court despite acknowledging shortcomings with the evidence. “This state would be better served,” she argued, “if we held to our usual course and remanded the case to the trial court.” Even after the North Carolina Supreme Court’s most recent ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court could review the case for a second time. According to an interview with the lawyers representing voters, there are also two lawsuits pending in federal court that challenge North Carolina’s district maps on the grounds that they discriminate against black voters by packing them into a few districts.
Why were the conservative justices on the North Carolina Supreme Court in such a hurry to uphold the map? The General Assembly—whose districts the map determines—received help in the drafting process from the Republican State Leadership Committee, or RSLC, a group that spends big money to elect GOP state legislators and has dominated spending in the past two North Carolina Supreme Court elections. The group has spent millions of dollars to keep the court conservative. Despite this obvious conflict of interest, the justices elected with the group’s help would not recuse themselves from the redistricting case.
The General Assembly has done everything it can to keep the North Carolina Supreme Court in conservative hands. In 2015, the legislature passed a bill allowing incumbent justices to run in retention elections in which they do not face an opponent. Because the next two election cycles will include only conservative incumbents, the move virtually ensures conservative control of the court for at least the next few years. For a decade, North Carolina operated a successful public financing program for judicial candidates, which allowed them to access public funds if they qualified by raising a certain amount of small contributions. But the legislature repealed this program in 2013, leaving the justices to rely on wealthy campaign donors and big spenders such as the RSLC.
In 2015, the General Assembly also considered a bill to once again use partisan elections to elect the North Carolina Supreme Court. The bill failed. Given the flood of GOP campaign cash into judicial elections and partisan rulings in politicized cases, it seems that the state Supreme Court has enough partisanship already.
North Carolinians deserve fair political representation and courts that will hold lawmakers accountable for violating the rights of voters. In a few states, legislators leave the redistricting process to independent, bipartisan commissions rather than letting legislators decide who their voters should be. Utilizing this approach in North Carolina would minimize gerrymandering and help ensure that no group of voters is marginalized for one party’s political gain. North Carolinians who do not want districts that are segregated by race should hope that the U.S. Supreme Court takes another look at the lines drawn by the General Assembly.
Billy Corriher is the Director of Research for Legal Progress at the Center for American Progress.
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