Last week federal judges struck down nearly 30 North Carolina House and Senate districts, saying that the districts were illegally gerrymandered by race.
The current districts will be used in the November election but will have to be redrawn for the next election cycle.
The decision by a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals comes on the heels of another ruling by federal judges, one that struck down North Carolina’s congressional districts for similar reasons, but required that new districts be drawn for the 2016 election.
The judges on the panel were Diana Gribbon Motz, nominated for the 4th Circuit by President Bill Clinton; James A. Wynn Jr., nominated by President Barack Obama; and Henry C. Floyd, nominated by Obama.
Legislative leaders said the ruling by the 4th Circuit contradicts a decision by the U.S. Justice Department in 2011 to not challenge the maps, and ignores rulings by the state Superior Court and the NC Supreme Court upholding the maps.
“We are relieved for voters that the … court did not disrupt the current election that is already under way,” Rep. David Lewis, (R-Harnett), and Sen. Bob Rucho, (R-Mecklenburg), said in a statement.
Lewis and Rucho were the architects of the redistricting maps.
Throughout the dispute, supporters of the maps noted how the legislature had followed previous court decisions, and how state courts had backed the districts.
The Civitas Institute’s elections expert, Susan Myrick, noted that arguing before the Superior Court, “attorneys for the General Assembly defended the maps by explaining in detail how they followed the steps laid out by a 2003 State Supreme Court Case, Stephenson v. Bartlett.”
As cited above, the state Superior Court and the NC Supreme Court approved the legislature’s maps. The state Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling covers the key legal issues; it can be found here.
Thursday’s ruling covers 19 districts in the House and nine Senate districts. The opinion written by Judge Wynn said that there was not enough time to redraw the districts before the election, as was required in the overturning of the congressional districts earlier this year.
In the opinion, Wynn wrote that postponing the November election “would cause significant and undue disruption to North Carolina’s election process and create considerable confusion, inconvenience, and uncertainty among voters, candidates, and election officials.”
Plaintiffs had asked that the districts be banned from use in any future elections.
The panel found that the state drew districts that had too many black voters in them. All but one of the challenged districts had black voting-age populations above 50 percent.
Attorneys for the state argued that racial polarization in voting still exists in North Carolina and that a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision says legislators can find safe harbor from U.S. Voting Rights Act liability when they draw majority-black districts in areas that can support them.
The plaintiffs argued, however, that black and white voters had been joining forces in recent years to elect candidates in districts with black populations below 50 percent, negating the need for truly majority-minority districts to elect the candidates favored by black voters.
After the 2010 redistricting, there were three times as many majority-black districts as in the 2000s, when Democrats controlled the mapping process.
While the panel’s decision lambasted the state for drawing too many true majority-minority voting districts, Wynn said that the ruling did not mean that majority-minority districts were not needed.
“Our decision today should in no way be read to imply that majority-black districts are no longer needed in the state of North Carolina,” Wynn wrote.
The Civitas Institute, a think tank in Raleigh, recently commented on Wynn’s background.
“ He has a long history of partisan political activity in North Carolina and actively worked with the people who instigated the case against North Carolina,” Civitas President Francis De Luca wrote. “While most judges with these obvious conflicts would recuse themselves from hearing the case, Wynn had no such scruples and used the case to help his partisan friends win in federal court what they couldn’t achieve at the ballot box.”