On Tuesday, in the second day of arguments on legal challenges to the North Carolina legislative and congressional districts, attorneys for the Republican-led General Assembly took their turn to defend the maps drawn two years ago.
At the center of the arguments, on both sides, is the “whole-county” provision in the North Carolina Constitution. The attorneys for the General Assembly defended the maps by explaining in detail how they they followed the steps laid out by a 2003 State Supreme Court Case, Stephenson v. Bartlett. The Court provided a step-by-step process for balancing the Whole County Provision with other laws:
- The General Assembly should first draw the districts required by the Voting Rights Act.
- Then take all counties with the right population to be single-member districts and make them one county districts
- Then take all the counties that have the right population for one or more districts and divide those counties into compact single-member
- The remaining counties should be grouped into clusters of counties and divide the clusters into compact single-member districts – crossing county lines within the cluster “as little as possible.
Attorneys for the Democrats and liberal advocacy groups challenging the maps were first to argue their case on Monday. Even while the maps were pre-approved in 2011 by the Justice Deparment in accordance with the Voting Rights Act, the challengers contend that the maps illegally packed black voters into a few districts and weakened their political influence. They argued that while race must be considered in redistricting, it cannot be a predominant motive.
It is interesting to note that some of the rules set down for this round of redistricting challenges were established by the General Assembly in 2003 at the time it enacted the newly approved (Stephenson v. Bartlett) legislative redistricting plan. At that time the legislature amended state law to require that any action involving redistricting would be filed and heard in the Superior Court of Wake County by a three-judge panel appointed by the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. Another change to state law which could be beneficial to the Republican majority this time requires that, if a court were to find a redistricting plan flawed, the General Assembly would have to be given a “period of time to remedy any defects identified by the court,” before the court imposed a substitute plan.
The three Superior Court judges hearing the arguments in this case are Joseph Crosswhite (Iredell County), Alma Hinton (Halifax County) and Paul Ridgeway (Wake County). The panel could uphold the plans or they could determine that all the maps or some districts are unconstitutional. Whatever the panel decides, it is almost certain that the case will ultimately end up in the State’s Supreme Court.