NC lawmakers should not be entrusted with drawing maps to fix gerrymanders, NAACP tells judges

The state NAACP has asked the federal judges tasked with deciding whether to order special legislative elections this year to give the civil-rights organization a voice in the matter, too.

And if the request is granted, the organization wants the judges to consider appointing a special master to draw new maps to correct the illegal racial gerrymanders that have been used for the last six years to elect General Assembly members. It also asked the three-judge panel to block the lawmakers from enacting any new legislation until corrective maps have been approved.

The requests were included in documents filed in federal court this week outlining the NAACP’s interest in supporting the voters whose lawsuit led to the finding that 28 of the 170 North Carolina legislative districts are illegal racial gerrymanders.

The questions of how quickly new district lines will be drawn to correct the maps and whether elections in the changed districts will be held this year or next are back before the three federal judges who ruled that the Republican-led legislature had unconstitutionally weakened the power of black voters in North Carolina.

A hearing is set for July 27 and the judges have instructed the attorneys to be ready to argue for and against special elections this year and say what timeline the court should set for readrawing maps.

Attorneys for legislative leaders have said the lawmakers stand ready to draw new legislative districts but have discouraged calls for elections this year.

Legislative leaders have estimated that 116 of the 170 districts used to elect General Assembly members might be changed to correct the 28 racial gerrymanders.

To recent NAACP demands that lawmakers cease activity until new maps are drawn, a spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger said in June that lawmakers “will not abandon our constitutional duties as we await specific instruction from the courts.”

The NAACP has filed its own lawsuits challenging the legislative and congressional district lines drawn by the Republican-led legislature in 2011. Republicans gained control of both General Assembly chambers in the 2010 election.

Every 10 years after the Census, state lawmakers must tweak maps used to elect members to the U.S. Congress and state legislatures across the country to reflect any population shifts.

With advances in technology and software that can quickly compile data showing racial composition and other neighborhood demographics, modern mapmakers can draw and redraw potential district lines to partisan advantage.

Though the courts have allowed for maps to be drawn to benefit a political party up to a point, the U.S. Supreme Court decided recently to take up a Wisconsin case in the fall that could test the limits to which districts can be drawn for partisan gain.

In recent elections, Democrats and Republicans have complained that elections no longer involve voters selecting who they want to represent them. Instead, they claim, elected officials are selecting the voters more likely to keep them in office.

North Carolina’s 2011 maps have been the focus of three lawsuits that led to U.S. Supreme Court rulings against the lawmakers who approved them.

Congressional lines were redrawn in 2016 to correct two racial gerrymanders, but the new maps have been challenged as blatantly partisan gerrymanders intended to keep 10 Republicans and three Democrats in the North Carolina delegation.

North Carolina lawmakers asked earlier this month for that trial to be put on hold until the Supreme Court decides the Wisconsin case.

While that question lingers, lawyers for the NAACP and other voters are looking toward an Aug. 28 hearing at the North Carolina Supreme Court.

The state’s highest court was ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year to revisit its ruling in a lawsuit filed by former legislator Margaret Dickson in the state courts.

That case questions the legality of the legislative and congressional districts drawn in 2011. The N.C. Supreme Court has ruled twice before for the lawmakers, saying that though race played a role in the drawing of the districts, the legislators had done so to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act.

But the U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back earlier this summer for one more look by a state Supreme Court that has shifted since its most recent review from a Republican to a Democratic majority.

Attorneys familiar with the many redistricting cases lingering in the courts expect the federal panel of judges to set the schedule for new maps sooner than the state justices.

This “is a case in which an all-white caucus wrested a veto-proof legislative supermajority for itself using racially discriminatory maps that contaminated at least 77 out of North Carolina’s 100 counties,” NAACP attorneys stated in their request to have a voice in the case.

Through that process, the attorneys continued, the lawmakers “proceeded directly and immediately to entrench the advantage … gained” by “legislating to intentionally suppress the political activity of black voters.”

The NAACP listed examples, including:

▪ The recently overturned 2013 election-law overhaul that called for a voter ID provision and other restrictions on voting. The lawmakers contended the changes were to protect against voter fraud, though there have been few cases prosecuted.

▪ The quick repeal of the Racial Justice Act, which was adopted in 2009 to allow the accused and convicted to use statistics to bolster claims that racial bias played a role in their cases. The law was approved largely along party lines when Democrats led the General Assembly. But it was overturned in 2013 after four death row inmates won relief under the short-lived act.

▪ House Bill 2, which before it was replaced included more than the controversial provision that required transgender people to use restrooms and locker rooms in schools and government buildings based on the gender listed on their birth certificates. “The law prohibited local governments from setting aside contracts for people-of-color and minority-owned businesses or raising the minimum wage,” the NAACP attorneys pointed out. It also eliminated a path in the state courts for people to pursue employment discrimination claims.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1