Legislators: New districts should be OK’d for 2018 elections

Published 8:03 pm Sunday, September 24, 2017

RALEIGH — New legislative district maps that North Carolina lawmakers approved last month eliminate any unlawful racial bias federal judges ruled was in previous maps and should be permitted for use in the 2018 elections, Republican legislators who helped draw them argued Friday.

Lawyers for the GOP leaders filed a court brief disputing arguments from voters who successfully overturned the original General Assembly maps and who are now contending the new ones also must be redone because they still contain a dozen districts that are illegal and unconstitutional.

The three-judge panel last year threw out 19 House districts and nine Senate districts from 2011 after concluding that they had been illegally gerrymandered on the basis of race. Their conclusion was based on the failure of GOP leaders to justify using race as the predominant factor in drawing them. The panel ordered new maps to be drawn by Sept. 1.

In the new maps drawn this year, Republicans specifically left out the use of racial data when drawing new boundaries, their lawyers noted in the court brief.

“The constitutional deficiencies identified by this court have been completely remedied by the 2017 plans,” attorney Phil Strach wrote, adding that Republican lawmakers used traditional redistricting principles to create fewer districts that cross county lines, fewer split districts, and more compact districts.

It’s now up to the same judges to accept the new maps, order more changes, or get a third-party expert to redraw them. It’s unclear when they’ll rule. Candidate filing for the 2018 elections is in February.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs want the judges to redraw the 12 districts and surrounding boundaries with alternatives they offered to legislators last month. But Strach wrote those boundaries are full of partisan gerrymanders that put more pairs of Republicans in the same district, meaning one ultimately would not return to Raleigh.

“This court should decline the invitation to usurp the legitimate legislative authority of the elected representatives of the people of North Carolina and draw a map that is more favorable to the plaintiffs’ political interests,” he wrote in a 58-page brief.

The 2011 maps favored Republicans, helping them expand their majorities at the General Assembly and press their right-leaning agenda. By creating an excessive number of districts with black voting-age populations, GOP mapmakers made surrounding districts more white and Republican, critics of the maps said.

The maps created this year still appear to benefit Republicans when party preference is examined in recent statewide election results, even though the number of majority-black districts in them fell dramatically.

Attorneys for the voters who want the new maps redrawn allege that four districts remain racial gerrymanders by their irregular shapes and concentrations of black voters. Mapmakers, however, said districts generally followed municipal and precinct boundaries and those with majority-black populations were “naturally occurring.”

The voters said the other eight districts that should be struck down violate the North Carolina Constitution — five because they were redrawn even though they didn’t need to be, and three because they failed to minimize district boundaries crossing county lines.

Strach told the judges those arguments are without merit and for North Carolina state courts, not a federal court, to decide.

The voters’ lawyers and their allies argued in court last week that legislative leaders disregarded input from a public hearing and more than 4,000 written or online comments.

In Friday’s brief, Strach wrote that while the maps reflected some input, most feedback at public hearings consisted of political statements “or just outright name calling.”