Federal judges on Friday approved changes a court-appointed expert made to two dozen North Carolina legislative districts, agreeing that maps approved by Republican lawmakers last summer didn’t fully remove previous illegal racial bias.
The map changes also came as the three-judge panel agreed with voters who sued over General Assembly boundaries that GOP legislators violated the state constitution’s provision against mid-decade redistricting by redrawing several House districts they weren’t required to adjust. Those districts in and around Raleigh and Charlotte must revert to their shapes as originally drawn in 2011, the judges said.
The judges’ order approved these alterations by special master Nathaniel Persily of Stanford University and directed Republican lawmakers to incorporate them in the unchallenged parts of Senate and House plans approved last August. The order means the updated maps must be used in this November’s election. Candidate filing begins Feb. 12.
The judges “find no deficiencies in — and instead, many marked improvements over — the related districts in the 2017 plan,” the judges wrote, adding later: “We direct the defendants to implement the special master’s recommended plans.”
Republican legislative leaders didn’t immediately respond to Friday’s decision, but they’ve already signaled they would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to block enforcement of a ruling accepting Persily’s plan. They say the maps approved in August were lawful and they criticized judges for hiring a special master, arguing lawmakers should have had another shot at redrawing.
The judges said the legislature wasn’t entitled to another opportunity, since they redrew the boundaries last summer after the same panel — U.S. Circuit Judge Jim Wynn and District Judges Catherine Eagles and Thomas Schroeder — ruled nearly 30 districts initially approved in 2011 were illegal racial gerrymanders.
Democrats and their allies praised the decision, which they said would result in fairer elections in 2018.
“We hope that legislators respect the reasoned opinion of this court that this kind of race discrimination has no place in our democracy,” said Allison Riggs, a lawyer with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, who represented voters who sued.
The altered district boundaries under Persily’s plan are likely to help Democrats in a couple of additional races in a year when the party hopes to eliminate veto-proof majorities held by Republicans. Those advantages have helped the GOP push a right-leaning agenda.
In four new House and Senate districts, the judges ruled Friday that the core of the old unconstitutionally race-based boundaries from the 2011 districts were left intact by the General Assembly and had to be eliminated. Two are in Guilford County, a third covered Hoke and Cumberland counties, and a fourth stretched into Wayne and Sampson counties. Adjoining districts also had to be altered.
Republicans disagreed, pointing out that they didn’t look at racial data when drawing the districts. But the judges wrote that the use of political data and the priority of helping incumbents “perpetuated the unconstitutional effects” of the districts.
Rejecting Republican arguments that Persily unlawfully used “racial targets” that lowered the black voting-age population in the four districts, the judges wrote that Persily followed their instructions carefully.
The accusation “amounts to a baseless attack on the special master’s integrity and credibility,” the judges wrote. Friday’s plan would put Democratic Sen. Gladys Robinson and Republican Sen. Trudy Wade in the same Guilford County district, threatening their re-election bids.
Friday’s ruling came a day after the U.S. Supreme Court delayed the order by Wynn and two other judges directing the legislature to approve a new congressional map by next week, citing over-the-top partisan bias favoring Republicans in the current plan.