You might have caught the big news this morning: A panel of Superior Court judges handed down a decision that upheld the General Assembly’s 2011 redistricting maps. Not surprisingly, mainstream reporting on this important issue has been far from comprehensive. WRAL used a bare-bones Associated Press report, while the Raleigh News and Observer trumpeted that “race played a role in the mapping of North Carolina’s legislative and congressional voting districts” in 2011. WRAL’s article is insufficient; the N&O article is downright misleading. If you really want to know about the case, you have to read the 171-page judgment delivered by the court. Since most people don’t have time to do that, this article should serve as a quick summary.
Here’s some background: in 2011, the General Assembly (with a newly-elected Republican majority) drew up new legislative districts for both the state House and Senate, and the U.S. House of Representatives. This change was prompted by the release of 2010 census data. The NC NAACP promptly sued the state, arguing that the new redistricting disenfranchised minority – and particularly black – voters. This, they argued, violated the equal protection provisions of the North Carolina and U.S. constitutions.
In deciding the case, the panel of judges first considered one central question: Whether the General Assembly had used race as an overriding consideration behind its redistricting plan. Since the state readily admitted that it had, the court then considered whether the redistricting plan furthered a “compelling state interest,” while remaining as “narrowly tailored” as possible.
The News and Observer makes a big deal out of the fact that the state considered race in its redistricting plan. But the state is actually required by federal law to do exactly that: The General Assembly plan called for the creation of “Voting Rights Act districts” specifically drawn to ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act.
The Superior Court judges decided that the redistricting plan created in 2011 does serve a compelling state interest – namely, compliance with federal regulation – and is in fact narrowly tailored to its intended purpose. In other words, it is fully compliant with the North Carolina constitution and the United States Constitution. The judges were wholly – and bitingly – unconvinced by the NAACP attorneys’ arguments:
Plaintiffs’ arguments are not persuasive because Plaintiffs have not produced alternative plans that are of value to the trial court for comparison in this narrow tailoring analysis. None of the alternative plans proposed or endorsed by the Plaintiffs contain VRA districts in rough proportion to the Black population in North Carolina. None of the alternative plans seek to comply with the General Assembly’s reasonable interpretation of Strickland … None of the alternative plans comply with the N.C. Supreme Court’s mandate in Stephenson … As such, the trial court is left to speculate that a redistricting plan exists – one that protects the State from §2 liability, ensures §5 preclearance, and accomplishes all of the legitimate legislative objectives of the General Assembly, including political gain, protection of incumbency, and population equalization – yet appears, on some subjective measure, to be more “compact” or less “irregular.”
Given the detailed analysis of the court, it is hard to imagine how any serious observer could maintain that the redistricting plan violated constitutional law. Mainstream reporting on this issue has been absolutely deplorable. North Carolinian citizens deserve better information from the press.