It took close to a year from the date of argument, but as expected by many the state Supreme Court today handed down its decision upholding the 2011 redistricting plan.
The justices voted along party lines in the 4-2 opinion in Dickson v. Rucho, with Justice Robert Edmunds writing the opinion for the majority.
Justices Cheri Beasley and Robin Hudson joined in dissent, holding that the case should go back to the three-judge panel that initially decided the case.
Justice Robert Hunter did not participate in the case.
The high court had not handed down any written decisions since August — with 37 cases pending for a ruling as of yesterday — but today caught up a bit with 22 opinions.
In Dickson, the majority found that the General Assembly was justified in using race to redraw the state’s congressional and legislative voting districts after the 2010 census, to the extent necessary to avoid liability under the Voting Rights Act. With respect to the 26 districts drawn for that purpose though, the state was obliged to narrowly tailor the redistricting.
The parties challenging the maps had argued in part that the state used race too often, when it wasn’t necessary, and too much — packing black voters into districts until their numbers reached beyond the 50 percent mark, even though the African-American populations there, while still in the minority, had already been exerting political influence and electing their candidates of choice.
The justices did not examine each of those districts to determine whether they were narrowly drawn but rather looked at percentages of black voters packed in, finding that on average they satisfied constitutional requirements.
The Total Black Voting Age Population percentage ranges from a low of 50.45% to a high of 57.33% in the twenty-six districts in question. However, the average Total Black Voting Age Population of the challenged districts is only 52.28%. Twenty-one of the twenty-six districts have Total Black Voting Age populations of less than 53%, and only two of these districts, Senate 28 and House 24, exceed 55% Total Black Voting Age Population.
We are mindful that a host of other factors were considered in addition to race, such as the Whole County Provision of the Constitution of North Carolina, protection of incumbents, one person,one-vote requirements and partisan considerations. As a result, we are satisfied that these districts are sufficiently narrowly tailored. They do not classify individuals based upon race to an extent greater than reasonably necessary to comply with the VRA, while simultaneously taking into account traditional districting principles.
The majority also found that moving more black voters — who tend to vote Democratic — into districts that already vote Democratic was permissible as long as the race was not the primary motive for doing so.
In dissent, Beasley and Hudson took issue with the majority’s analysis, which they said overlooked several factual and legal errors by the court below and appeared to be a rush toward finality.
The majority compounds the error by ignoring altogether the trial court’s explicit findings of fact and by too generously characterizing the General Assembly’s enacted plan. The majority’s departure from this Court’s usual course of adherence to our settled principles of appellate review could create a stain of suspicion among the citizens of the state regarding the actions of their elected officials and bodies of government—both legislative and judicial.
Beasley also expressed her concern that, to the extent the majority sustained districts drawn for “legitimate” partisan purposes, politics may have served as cover for race.
Discussing Congressional District 12, which runs along I-85 between Mecklenburg and Guilford Counties, Beasley wrote:
With respect to Congressional District 12, the trial court’s findings belie a fundamental problem with redistricting, particularly in North Carolina, the importance of which cannot be overstated. . . . Because race and politics historically have been and currently remain intertwined in North Carolina, I cannot escape my conviction that politics are a pretext for this excruciatingly contorted race-based district. . . . To allow this serpentine district, which follows the I-85 corridor between Mecklenburg and Guilford Counties, to be drafted for political advantage is a proxy for racial disenfranchisement and effectively creates a “magic words” threshold. Upholding this district’s tortured construction creates an incentive for legislators to stay “on script” and avoid mentioning race on the record,and in this instance, it is disingenuous to suggest that race is not the predominant factor.
Attorneys for the map’s challengers said the court’s decision raises several issues for U.S. Supreme Court review and are planning to appeal quickly so that new maps can be drawn before the 2016 elections.
“The Plaintiffs in this case intend to continue their efforts to vindicate their rights. It is simply wrong for the legislature to carve up this state on the basis of race in these circumstances,” said Anita Earls, lead attorney for the North Carolina NAACP Plaintiffs.
“This is a disappointing development, but we will not give up in our fight to ensure that redistricting in this state is conducted in a fair and legal way,” added Brenda Rogers of the League of Women Voters.
State Rep. David Lewis and Sen. Bob Rucho — who spearheaded the redistricting effort — praised the decision.
“Today’s decision confirms that our redistricting process and maps are what we have said all along: fair and legal,” they said in a statement.
Read the court’s full opinion here.