Attorneys Wrap Up Arguments In NC Redistricting
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- After two days of legal sparring over North Carolina's political maps, a panel of judges now must decide whether dozens of districts drawn by Republicans amounted to racial discrimination, or if they have more to do with partisanship and following redistricting rules than race.
A panel of three Superior Court judges heard about 10 hours of testimony in Raleigh over lawsuits filed by Democratic voters and civil rights and election advocacy groups seeking to declare unconstitutional the maps approved in 2011 and used in last year's elections for the first time.
The new General Assembly and congressional district boundaries, if upheld, are expected to favor the GOP for years.
The judges didn't immediately rule. Wake County Judge Paul Ridgeway, the lead judge, didn't give a timetable but opened the door to seek more information on a complicated case in which lawyers have filed thousands of pages of documents since the November 2011 lawsuits. Regardless of the outcome, the decisions are likely to be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
After lawyers for the maps' opponents spent all day Monday making their case, representatives for the state and GOP redistricting leaders got their chance to defend the maps Tuesday.
Tom Farr, a private attorney representing Republican legislative leaders, said race wasn't the predominant factor in forming the districts, which were drawn largely by national Republican redistricting consultant Thomas Hofeller, according to depositions. The predominance issue is a key factor.
"We do not think it's a racial gerrymander to draw a 50 percent district," Farr said. "It's not a racial gerrymander to draw districts with a consciousness of race. If that were true, your honors, all of these districts would be racial gerrymanders."
Their opponents had argued a day earlier that the maps are unlawful because they created more than 30 legislative districts in which black residents are a majority of the voting-age population. They claimed the GOP illegally packed black voters into sprawling districts, split voting precincts and failed to keep whole counties within districts.
In North Carolina, as in other Southern states, political mapmaking is subject to the federal Voting Rights Act, which is designed to protect voters from discrimination. The North Carolina mapmakers said a U.S. Supreme Court decision also demands they create majority-black districts whenever feasible to overcome racially polarized voting they say still permeates in the state.
Districts from previous redistricting cycles largely penned by Democrats relied more on "crossover" or "influence" districts that contained black populations of roughly 40 percent, which the mapmakers said would still give black voters political power. Attorneys challenging the new maps say polarized voting still exists but doesn't require so many majority-black districts to overcome it due to changing views on race.
Republicans in charge of both the House and Senate for the first time in 140 years in 2011 drew districts based on U.S. Census figures partially with the aim of improving their chances to preserve their majorities through the 2020 elections. Changes in congressional maps helped Republicans win nine of North Carolina's 13 U.S. House seats, compared with the six they held before the 2012 elections.
"Politics explains a lot," said Phil Strach, another outside attorney representing GOP legislative leaders. He said the makeup of the 1st, 4th and 12th congressional districts - all represented by Democrats - contributed mostly to bringing in voters who supported President Barack Obama.
During rebuttal arguments Tuesday afternoon, Anita Earls, an attorney with the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice representing advocacy groups, took offense at the partisanship arguments. She said she's representing some voters who can recall their parents being unable to register to vote due to Jim Crow-era literacy tests.
"To say that they're seeking districts that are fair to them based on race (but) that that's just politics is really condescending and insulting and irrelevant," Earls told the judges.
Farr stood by the partisanship allegation later Tuesday, saying those who challenged the maps want to reduce the percentage of black voters in majority-black districts and increase it in surrounding districts "that will elect more white Democrats."
The lawsuits accuse GOP lawmakers of needlessly splitting hundreds of voting districts affecting nearly 2 million voters and failing to keep whole counties within districts.
The whole-county issue appears to be a key difference between the two sides. A 2004 state Supreme Court decision lays out how legislators should comply with a provision prohibiting the splitting of counties between districts while complying with the Voting Rights Act.
Attorneys for the Democrats say the directive means the number of split counties should be as small as possible, but Republicans say the ruling tells mapmakers to form districts by combining or grouping the fewest number of whole counties.