- Associated Press - Sunday, April 10, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - A federal court ruled two months ago Republican legislators weren’t legally justified in turning two North Carolina congressional boundaries into majority-black districts and ordered new lines.

Starting Monday, another panel of three federal judges convenes a weeklong trial deciding whether close to 30 of the 170 state House and Senate districts approved almost five years ago by the General Assembly also are illegal racial gerrymanders and must be redrawn.

Voters in the challenged districts who sued make largely the same arguments that won out in February’s separate congressional litigation. They say legislators created too many minority-majority districts when evidence shows black voters have been able to elect their preferred candidates in districts when their voting-age population was well below 50 percent.

The congressional district ruling forced lawmakers to quickly redraw the map and delay the March congressional primary until June. It’s unclear whether, if the legislative plaintiffs are successful, new boundaries would be ordered for this year.

The current General Assembly boundaries used in 2012 and 2014 helped Republicans pad their seat advantages over Democrats. Redrawn districts could threaten their veto-proof majorities and ability to unilaterally pass legislation.



In a pretrial brief, voting rights lawyer Anita Earls makes several references to the February ruling in explaining why race was the predominant factor in the 2011 round of redistricting.

But the legislative maps failed to remedy racially polarized voting or improve black voter participation in elections, she wrote. Rather, the challenged districts “methodically packed black voters in even higher concentrations than ever before, using a perverted and completely unsupported interpretation of the (U.S.) Voting Rights Act.”

Attorneys for the state and for legislative leaders defending the maps again take the view race didn’t control how they drew the nine Senate and 19 House maps. Citing a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling involving North Carolina, they say GOP lawmakers had good reason to believe creating majority-black districts would protect them from Voting Rights Act liability. They also had to meet state criteria when drawing General Assembly districts.

Those who sued “are attempting to impose impossible legal obligations” on mapmakers, Alec Peters and Tom Farr wrote in the state’s pretrial filing. “They have articulated no standards or criteria that can be used by the General Assembly to comply with the competing hazards of liability.”

In an interview, Earls pointed to a Supreme Court ruling last year involving Alabama legislative districts that cautioned mapmakers against using “mechanical racial targets” above other redistricting criteria. She sidestepped a question whether the congressional district legal victory forecast success in the legislative case but said “certainly the legal principles that they applied apply equally in this case.”

Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, the Senate Redistricting Committee chairman, emphasized last Friday how both the congressional and legislative maps were signed off on by the U.S. Justice Department in late 2011. They’ve also been upheld by a panel of three state judges and twice by the state Supreme Court.

“We would expect to see a similar validation of the (legislative) district maps,” Rucho said. The state also has appealed the federal congressional district case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The three-judge panel in Monday’s trial - U.S. District Judges Thomas Schroeder and Catherine Eagles and U.S. Circuit Judge Jim Wynn - refused last fall to stop this year’s legislative elections while the case was being heard. Should the judges rule for the plaintiffs, state attorneys wrote they should delay requiring any changes in the maps until the 2018 elections. General Assembly primary races already were held in March.

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