Courts & the Law, News

Federal judge blocks redistricting law singling out Greensboro voters, rules it unconstitutional

A federal judge issued a partial ruling Monday in favor of the city of Greensboro in a redistricting lawsuit that involves a 2015 controversial law passed by the General Assembly.

U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Eagles also ruled the General Assembly’s redistricting of the Greensboro City Council districts unconstitutional.

She cited the one person, one vote doctrine and said “the evidence here establishes that the North Carolina General Assembly drew Greensboro City Council districts with materially unequal populations in an attempt to maximize success for Republican candidates.”

“Neither the State nor any legislative leaders defended this law in court or disputed the plaintiffs’ evidence, and the primary legislative sponsor refused to testify,” the 27-page court document states.

She enjoined the Guilford County Board of Elections, the defendant in the case, from conducting any elections under the eight-district plan and directed that future elections “shall use the pre-existing statutory and city charter system with five single-member districts and three at-large members, unless and until that system or those district lines are lawfully changed.”

Her first order regarding the 2015 law, which passed despite widespread opposition in the House and only after backroom arm-twisting, prohibits residents of Greensboro from participating in municipal initiatives or referendums.

Eagles wrote in her ruling that the law violates the equal protection clauses of the U.S. and the N.C. Constitutions. She made issued an opinion and order after the plaintiffs, six Greensboro residents and the city, requested a summary judgment.

“The defendant, the Guilford County Board of Elections, takes no position on the constitutionality of this
provision,” the ruling states. “The State has not appeared in this litigation and thus has identified neither a legitimate governmental purpose for the initiative and referendum ban nor a rational relationship between any such purpose and singling out of Greensboro voters. No legitimate purpose or rational relationship appears in the undisputed evidence.”

The undisputed evidence is that the law prohibits the City of Greensboro from changing the form of its municipal government and it does not apply to any other municipality in the state. Of particular issue in the lawsuit is a prohibition on citizen initiatives and referendums that would change the form of city government.

“While the General Assembly has redistricted and reapportioned other cities and boards from time to time, nothing before the Court indicates that the General Assembly has ever before prohibited an existing municipality’s voters from participating in the referendums and initiatives described in §§ 160A-103 and -104,” Eagles wrote. “The same law at issue here also changed the government of the City of Trinity, but the General Assembly did not prohibit the citizens of that city from using initiatives or referendums. The only other similar 2015 session law, which changed the City of Albemarle’s election procedures, did not deprive those citizens of their initiative or referendum rights, either.”

You can read the entire 21-page court document here.

In her second order, she also enjoined the section of the law prohibiting citizen initiatives and referendums.

Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan announced the partial victory on her Facebook page, but withheld comment.

Allison Riggs, Senior Attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and lead attorney on the case for the individual plaintiffs involves, issued the following statement:

“We are pleased that the court recognized the wrong that would have been done to the City of Greensboro and its residents if this redistricting scheme were allowed to go into effect. We can debate policies and practices, but there are certain rights that should never be denied to anyone in America. One of those is the right to have everyone’s vote have the same weight.

“When the legislature overreached into local politics, it did so with no regard for respecting the people’s right to have their voice heard. Today, the court correctly provided a check for a gross legislative overreach.”

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