The NC General Assembly’s redistricting of the Greensboro City Council in 2015 has been ruled unconstitutional. In what can be thought of as a “head-scratcher,” the state of North Carolina made no defense in a recent case before a Federal judge.
The opinion that accompanied the decision of Federal District Judge Catherine Eagles stated, “No one has substantively defended the constitutionality of the Act, directly or indirectly. A group of citizens who initially intervened, alleging that the Act was constitutional, decided to withdraw after concluding that any defense would be ‘futile.’ The Attorney General decided not to participate on behalf of the State, and legislative leaders who had the statutory right to intervene did not seek to do so. The primary legislative sponsor of the Act invoked legislative privilege and refused to testify.”
The Guilford County Board of Elections was named as the defendant in the lawsuit filed by the City of Greensboro and others. A spokesman for the board said that it had nothing to do with the law other than facilitating the elections, and had “nothing to do with passing the act and possesses no evidence about the redistricting process.”
The bill that passed in 2015 was HB 263, originally filed by Rep. Pat Hurley (R-Randolph). It is a bill that redistricted the City Council of Trinity, NC. The Greensboro redistricting bill was SB 36, filed by Sen. Trudy Wade (R-Guilford). The language in Wade’s bill was rolled into Hurley’s bill and HB 263 passed. redistricting both Trinity and Greensboro.
The Greensboro redistricting was intended to more evenly distribute representation throughout the city. Currently council members are elected in a mixture of at-large and open districts, with several of them living in a cluster in the Northeast part of the city. The redistricting law created eight different districts and removed the at-large seats. It also said that the mayor would only would get to vote in the case of a tie.
Advocates for the bill said that it distributed representation more fairly across the city, especially for minorities. Opponents – mostly sitting council members, the mayor and Democrats – said that it was designed merely to help Republicans, who historically have not held many city council seats in Greensboro.
The debate in July 2015 in the General Assembly surrounding the bill was memorable, as the House initially rejected Hurley’s bill, which had passed in the House but had been changed in the Senate to include the Greensboro redistricting. A conference committee was appointed to work out difference between the House and the Senate. After agreeing to language in the bill that was suitable to representatives from the House and the Senate on the committee, the House voted not to pass it.
Literally a few minutes later, after a parliamentary move by then-Rep. Charles Jeter allowed for a re-vote on the bill, the House voted again and passed the bill. Several House members voiced their objections to the process, saying that threats from the Senate not to hear House bills unless HB 263 passed were disconcerting. House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain) said he was unaware of such threats.
The bill passed and was almost immediately targeted by litigation filed by City of Greensboro leaders and some citizens. The defendant in the suit was the Guilford County Board of Elections, which indicated it had nothing to do with the filing, drafting or voting on of the bill. Consequently, the board was not inclined to defend the law before Judge Eagles.
The Trinity redistricting has not been questioned. Eagles stated in her opinion, “The plaintiffs have not challenged the constitutionality of any portion of Section One or any of the changes to Trinity’s elections.”
A bill that seemed vitally important to the General Assembly in 2015 has gone up in flames, with very little if any defense. It has been adjudicated by a Democrat judge to violate the Equal Protection Clause of both the U.S. and state Constitutions. Greensboro will continue to elect its city council the same way it has since 1983.