- Associated Press - Monday, April 11, 2016

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) - Awkwardly-shaped state legislative districts drawn by North Carolina Republicans in 2011 went back on trial Monday, just two months after federal judges who heard similar arguments threw out some congressional boundaries as illegal racial gerrymanders.

Voters in nine House districts and 19 Senate districts sued last year. The General Assembly maps have helped the GOP expand and retain its control of the legislature in in the 2012 and 2014 elections. State judges have previously upheld challenged legislative boundary lines in separate lawsuits.

A three-judge panel February struck down the majority-black 1st and 12th Congressional Districts, forcing lawmakers to draw new lines and delay the congressional primaries until June. That court decision has raised expectations that the challenged legislative districts could also be struck down, forcing lawmakers to redraw them as well.

As in the congressional district case, plaintiffs in the two federal cases argue GOP legislators violated the U.S. Voting Rights Act when they went too far drawing state legislative districts with black voting-age populations of more than 50 percent. Their lawyers contend that packing an inordinate number of minorities into some districts dilutes minority influence in other districts, in violation of federal voting law.

All but one of the 28 districts challenged are majority-black. Democratic mapmakers created only 10 majority-black districts during the last full General Assembly redistricting in 2003. The plaintiffs say in recent decades black voters in districts that are not black-majority have been electing their preferred candidates with the help of white voters.

The expansion of majority-black districts reinforces racial stereotypes that black voters can only vote for or be represented by those with the same skin-color, plaintiffs’ attorney Anita Earls said during her opening statement in a Greensboro courtroom.

“I thought the plan was a step backward in time,” said the plaintiffs’ first witness, state Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake, who voted against the 2011 maps, as did all the black legislators at the time. “It seemed to us offensive for race to be criteria for the way districts were drawn.”

Blue, North Carolina’s first and only black House speaker in the 1990s and now a state senator, was elected in the late 2000s in a diamond-shaped district drawn with a black voting-age population of 43 percent. His district was redrawn in 2011 with a black population of 51 percent although he and his predecessor, who was black, won by comfortable margins.

Although unusually-shaped districts aren’t inherently illegal gerrymandering, they do generate higher scrutiny. Many of the other challenged districts stretch out in odd directions, seemingly to boost racial populations based on census data.

Tom Farr, an attorney representing the state and legislative leaders in this and other redistricting litigation, declined to give an opening statement, deferring to the defense’s trial briefs. State attorneys declined to comment during a trial break.

In a pre-trial brief, Farr and his colleague wrote that legislators were following a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that they say allowed them to comply with the Voting Rights Act by drawing districts with a black population above 50 percent.

During cross examination by defense attorney Phil Strach, Blue acknowledged he never offered an alternative map of his district or other Senate districts in 2011. Defense briefs say critics of the plans have failed to provide standards legislators would have to follow to create legal maps that also must comply with state-specific redistricting criteria.

At-large Greensboro City Council member Yvonne Johnson and plaintiff the Rev. Julian Pridgen of Kinston testified how fellow black residents in their communities have been elected to city- or countywide positions with the help of white voters. Their testimony attempts to affirm that increasing black populations in legislative districts weren’t necessary.

“It’s packing all the black folks in one area,” Pridgen said.

Earls said she wants the panel - U.S. District Judges Thomas Schroeder and Catherine Eagles and U.S. Circuit Judge Jim Wynn - to force lawmakers to redraw the maps. If the state loses, the state attorneys wrote, the judges should delay requiring any changes in the maps until the 2018 elections.

The trial resumes Tuesday.

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