North Carolina Supreme Court upholds districts for Legislature, Congress drawn by Republicans

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RALEIGH, North Carolina — The North Carolina Supreme Court Friday upheld the boundaries for General Assembly and congressional districts drawn by Republicans three years ago that helped the GOP strengthen its grip on legislative seats.

Nearly a year after hearing oral arguments on the maps, a majority on the state's highest court ruled that a three-judge panel was correct last year in determining the lines were lawful under the state and federal constitutions.

Two of the six sitting justices ruling in the case disagreed and said lawmakers wrongly packed black voters under the belief it would provide them protection from litigation, and the maps should be revisited by the three judges. The case could wind up at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The maps, which were first used in the 2012 elections, have helped strengthen the grip of Republicans in state politics. The GOP holds comfortable margins over Democrats in the General Assembly and will carry 10 of the 13 seats in the state's U.S. House delegation starting in January.

Election and civil rights advocacy groups and Democratic voters sued over the maps, arguing the boundaries illegally clustered black voters in districts to benefit Republicans, creating oddly shaped districts. Republicans said the districts were lawful and designed to protect the state from legal claims under the U.S. Voting Rights Act. The litigation focused on 30 districts — 27 for the General Assembly and three for Congress.

"We are proud to have broken the cycle set by previous legislatures that repeatedly saw their maps tossed out by the courts as illegal," Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, and Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, who oversaw the drawing of the maps in 2011, said in a release. During the 2000s, lawmakers were required to redraw legislative boundaries three times.

For 26 of the districts deemed subject to the Voting Rights Act, the trial court panel determined that race was the predominant factor in forming their boundaries and thus required a higher level of scrutiny. Writing for the majority, Associate Justice Bob Edmunds said the panel didn't offer enough findings of fact to determine race was the leading factor and thus a lower level of scrutiny was applicable.

"Nonetheless, this error is not fatal and does not invalidate the trial court's order," Edmunds wrote, adding later in his 51-page opinion the boundaries still withstood the higher scrutiny and were thus lawful. The other four districts also met the law, the justice wrote.

"The General Assembly's enacted plans do not violate plaintiffs' constitutional rights. We hold that the enacted House and Senate plans satisfy state and federal constitutional and statutory requirements," he wrote.

Associate Justice Cheri Beasley wrote in a 29-page dissenting opinion the higher scrutiny did apply but those districts failed to meet that threshold. She said other districts also violated the state constitution's directive barring the splitting of counties to form House and Senate districts — as long as the boundaries first comply with federal civil rights voting laws.

"For any of these errors, this court would do well to vacate and remand rather than prematurely affirm a defective and ultimately undemocratic districting plan," Beasley wrote. Justice Robin Hudson joined in Beasley's opinion.

In news releases, plaintiffs and lawyers who sued said they plan to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

"It is simply wrong for the legislature to carve up this state on the basis of race in these circumstances." said attorney Anita Earls, representing the North Carolina NAACP. Rucho and Lewis said they hoped "hyper-partisan rhetoric" by opponents of the maps would now end with Friday's ruling.

Since the Supreme Court heard from the lawyers in person last Jan. 6, Chief Justice Sarah Parker stepped down from the court after reaching the mandatory retirement age for judges. Mark Martin is now the chief justice. Associate Justice Bob Hunter, who joined the court in September but lost an election for an eight-year term last month, did not participate in the deliberations, the court said.

While Supreme Court elections are officially nonpartisan, Hudson and Beasley are registered Democrats. The remaining sitting justices — Martin, Edmunds, Paul Newby and Barbara Jackson — are Republicans.

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