Lawsuits live on

Published 12:17 am Saturday, January 21, 2012

Judges deny injunction

A three-judge panel in Raleigh declined to grant a motion for an injunction to push back the filing period for North Carolina offices and postpone the May 8 primary election.

The panel’s decision appeared to be a blow to Democratic officials and activist groups that sued the state to turn back legislative-redistricting plans approved last year by the Republican-led N.C. General Assembly.

The two lawsuits brought by these groups have local implications.

As things stand, the maps generated by lawmakers split Beaufort County roughly in two, with part of the county tucked into House District 3 with portions of Craven County and all of Pamlico County. The rest of Beaufort County, much of it north of the Pamlico River, is included in House District 6 with Dare, Hyde and Washington counties.

Kellie Harris Hopkins, Beaufort County’s elections director, in an affidavit filed in Wake County, voiced concerns about preserving ballot secrecy for small numbers of voters in Washington precincts split by these districts.

In a separate issue from the one addressed by Hopkins, the plaintiffs maintain many of the reshaped districts across the state unfairly disenfranchise black voters and other groups in favor of the Republican majority, which wants to maintain control of the Legislature.

But the president pro tempore of the state Senate expressed confidence the districts would withstand further legal scrutiny.

“This just continues to validate what we’ve said all along, that these maps are legal, they’re constitutional, they’re appropriate,” Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said in a telephone interview with the Washington Daily News.

“Today’s decision ensures our primary elections will continue as scheduled, and it lifts a cloud of uncertainty from the elections process,” Berger said in a statement released Friday by his staff. “This is an important victory for the voters of North Carolina.”

The two separate legal challenges to the plans realigning the state’s legislative and congressional districts were mounted last year.

These cases are being considered together in Raleigh by the three-judge panel, which was appointed by Sarah Parker, chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court.

The cases live on in court, and the three Superior Court judges haven’t ruled on the merits of the plaintiffs’ arguments, related Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, an advocacy group and one of the plaintiffs.

In a telephone interview, Hall said it was unfortunate the judges declined to grant the injunction, which Democrats and their allies had argued was necessary because the legal issues on the table hadn’t been resolved.

“They seemed to affirm their concern in some ways, but acted like the calendar was difficult for them to manage,” Hall said of the judges. “I’m concerned that even the defendants, even the Republicans and state of North Carolina … admit that the most serious problems often happen with the first election after redistricting.”

The judges’ decision to decline issuing the injunction could be appealed directly to the state Supreme Court, but it was unclear whether that appeal would be filed, he said.

“If that is not done then the arguments would just continue, the case would continue, and the filing dates for the candidates would be as it is,” Hall added.

The U.S. Department of Justice must “preclear” election changes in North Carolina under requirements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The VRA has been called the premier legislative achievement of the civil-rights era.

The Justice Department did preclear the 2011 maps, leaving open questions about whether they violated the civil-rights law, though Republican leaders said those questions had been settled.

The Justice Department didn’t weigh in on a provision in state case law that dictates lawmakers must keep counties whole whenever possible when redrawing district lines. It’s the whole-county factor that observers like Hall say could crop up as the cases move forward.

The whole-county provision arose out of the Stephenson case, brought by Republican lawmakers and others after the previous round of redistricting 10 years ago, when the Legislature was controlled by Democrats.

That case took on the name of the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, the now-late Ashley Stephenson of Washington.