News

Individuals and groups challenging North Carolina’s 2011 redistricting plan wasted little time today getting their case back before the state Supreme Court, filing papers a short while ago asking for an expedited hearing and decision in time for elections in 2016.

That request followed on the heels of this morning’s U.S. Supreme Court order vacating the state court’s December 2014 decision upholding the plan and calling for a new hearing in light of the high court’s late March decision in a similar Alabama case.

In today’s filing, the plan’s challengers pointed out five ways in which the state Supreme Court decision erred, given the analysis called for by the justices in the Alabama case:

First, the United States Supreme Court’s Alabama decision establishes that the trial court here correctly concluded that race was the dominant factor used to draw the challenged Senate, House, and Congressional Districts. Indeed, under the Supreme Court’s decision, there is no reasonable basis to conclude that race was not the predominant factor used by the North Carolina General Assembly in drawing the challenged districts.

Second, the decision establishes that North Carolina’s Section 5 justification for its race-based actions is invalid, unfounded, and unsupported by the text of Section 5.

Third, the decision establishes that even if North Carolina had a compelling Section 5 justification for its race-based actions, it failed to narrowly tailor the challenged districts to conform to any such justification.

Fourth, the decision and the remand in these cases strongly suggest that North Carolina’s Section 2 justification for its race-based actions is also invalid and unfounded and unsupported by the text of Section 2.

Fifth, the decision and the remand strongly suggest that even if North Carolina had a compelling Section 2 justification for its race-based actions, it failed to narrowly tailor the challenged districts to conform to any such justification.

They are asking the court to set a schedule that envisions an initial determination whether the case has to go back to the three-judge trial panel for additional findings and then further briefing if necessary at the Supreme Court to be completed by the end of June, with argument to follow as soon as possible thereafter.

To that end, it’s worth noting that the state’s highest court has already scheduled an unusual late June argument day to hear an expedited appeal of the Governor’s lawsuit against the legislative leaders concerning commission appointments.

Click here to read the challenger’s motion in full.

News

The U.S. Supreme Court sent the North Carolina redistricting case back to the state Supreme Court this morning for further review in light of the high court’s recent decision in a similar Alabama case.

The North Carolina groups and individuals who initially sued lawmakers in state court — contending that the state’s 2011 plan constituted an unlawful racial gerrymander — filed papers in January asking the justices to review the state Supreme Court’s 2014 decision upholding the plan.

Then in late March, the nation’s highest court decided the Alabama case — applying a different analysis than that used by our state justices and sending that state’s plan back to the trial court for further review. (For more on the relationship between the Alabama and the North Carolina cases read here.)

The Court ruled that race predominated in an Alabama redistricting plan which moved black voters into majority-minority districts in order to prevent the percentage of minority voters from declining, and that such race-based redistricting must be strictly scrutinized.

Five days later, the court likewise sent a case raising similar issues regarding Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District, Cantor v. Personhuballah, back down for further review.

The challengers of the North Carolina plan — relying in part upon the analysis in the Alabama decision — argued in papers recently filed with the Supreme Court that our state maps should also be strictly scrutinized and rejected as race-based gerrymanders.

With today’s order, the state Supreme Court will now have to review the 2011 redistricting plan using those parameters.

Here’s the order:

Dickson GVR

 

News

SCOTUS redistricting mapsOn tomorrow’s calendar of petitions for review by the U.S. Supreme Court is Dickson v. Rucho, the challenge to the state’s 2010 redistricting plan.

The groups and individuals who initially sued lawmakers in state court — contending that the plan constituted an unlawful racial gerrymander — filed papers in January asking the justices to review the state Supreme Court’s 2014 decision upholding the plan.

Since then, the nation’s highest court decided a similar case out of Alabama — applying a different analysis than that used by our state justices and sending that state’s plan back to the trial court for further review. (For more on the relationship between the Alabama and the North Carolina cases read here.)

The Court ruled that race predominated in an Alabama redistricting plan which moved black voters into majority-minority districts in order to prevent the percentage of minority voters from declining, and that such race-based redistricting must be strictly scrutinized.

Five days later, the court likewise sent a case raising similar issues regarding Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District, Cantor v. Personhuballah, back down for further review.

The challengers of the North Carolina plan — relying in part upon the analysis in the Alabama decision — contend that our state maps should also be strictly scrutinized and rejected as race-based gerrymanders.

Citing the Alabama opinion, they argue:

Certiorari must be granted in this case to end the use of irregularly shaped race-based election districts in North Carolina because “[r]acial gerrymandering strikes at the heart of our democratic process, undermining the electorate’s confidence in its government as representative of a cohesive body politic in which all citizens are equal before the law.”

They also point out that state lawmakers’ use of “mechanical racial targets” led to the drawing of districts that were “even more bizarrely shaped” than those examined by the justices in the Alabama case — as illustrated in the image above. (The enacted district as opposed to alternatives is in the bottom right corner.)

News

Duke EnergyFor a short time this past week, it looked like Duke Energy’s negotiated plea agreements resolving coal ash-related federal criminal charges might be coming apart.

Under the agreements, as detailed by the company in a February 20 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Duke Energy’s North Carolina subsidiaries would plead guilty to four Clean Water Act misdemeanors related to violations at Duke Energy Progress’ H.F. Lee Steam Electric Plant, Cape Fear Steam Electric Plant and Asheville Steam Electric Generating Plant, and five Act misdemeanors related to violations at Duke Energy Carolinas’ Dan River Steam Station and Riverbend Steam Station.

Together the companies would pay a total of $102 million in fines and penalties and for community service and mitigation expenses and serve five years of probation – during which time they would establish environmental compliance plans subject to the oversight of a court-appointed monitor.

Approval  of the agreements had been set by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina for this Thursday, April 16 and, by all appearances  —  at least from the court records — the parties were on pace with that schedule.

Until April 6.

That’s when David Buente, a high profile environmental defense attorney with Sidley & Austin in Washington D.C. appeared as a new attorney on the Duke Energy team.

A day later Duke Energy asked the court for more time, filing motions to continue the April 16 plea and sentencing to a later date.

The reasons for the request remained a mystery, though, as the court had placed the motions under seal.

A new attorney and a request for a delay for undisclosed reasons cast the plea deal in doubt — until this morning, when U.S. District Judge Malcolm Howard entertained Duke Energy’s request in open court.

As it turned out, there was indeed a hitch in consummating the plea deal, though not nearly as dramatic as the build-up appeared.

Duke Energy wanted more time to wrap up administrative negotiations with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency relating to the companies’ criminal pleas.

Under the principal of “debarment,” entities pleading guilty to a crime can be prohibited from doing business with the government.

In this case, according to Duke Energy, once the involved companies enter guilty pleas the facilities subject to the agreements could be barred from doing future business with the government.

The companies can get around that by persuading the EPA that they’ve satisfied the issues giving rise to the plea agreements and convincing the agency to waive debarment.

The government objected to Duke Energy’s request for more time, saying that the company knew for some time that it had to wrestle with the EPA over the issue.

“What about the lights going out at places like Fort Bragg,” Judge Howard asked – a scenario he alluded to as having been painted in Duke Energy’s motion.

Debarment is prospective only, Assistant U.S. Attorney Banu Rangarajan pointed out, and Fort Bragg’s contract doesn’t expire until September.

Plus, she added, military officials have the authority to override debarment.

In the end, Howard agreed to reset the plea and sentencing hearing for the court’s own reasons, saying that conditions of probation and other details still needed to be finalized.

Practically speaking, debarment might not have any teeth as a possible sanction when it comes to a regulated utility like Duke Energy that operates as a monopoly.

But getting a waiver of debarment was important for Duke Energy customers, spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said after the hearing, pointing out that getting service otherwise would become much more complicated.

“This is about getting certainly for our customers,” she said.

When asked what ultimate impact a ruling on debarment would have on the plea agreement, Sheehan said none.

“We’re not walking away from this agreement.”

Per this order, the court reset the plea and sentencing hearing for 10:00 a.m. on May 14, 2015 at the federal courthouse in Greenville, N.C.

News

The nearly ten-year vacant federal district court slot in eastern North Carolina tops the list of “most ridiculously long judicial vacancies that the Senate hasn’t filled,” as highlighted by the Huffington Post this past weekend.

Here’s a look at the worst Senate offenders when it comes to not filling long-vacant judgeships in their home states.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.)

There’s a seat on U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina that’s been empty for 3,387 days. That’s more than nine years, and it has no nominee.

Burr avoided questions from The Huffington Post last year about why he was blocking a previous nominee for the slot, Jennifer May-Parker. His obstruction of May-Parker was particularly puzzling, given that he previously recommended her to Obama.

A Burr spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on the hold-up for filling the seat, and on whether Burr plans to recommend a nominee soon. A request for comment also was not returned from Burr’s home-state counterpart, freshman Sen. Thom Tillis (R).

Of course none of that is news to court watchers here, many of whom continue to scratch their heads as to why U.S. Senator Richard Burr refused last year to support President Obama’s nominee, Jennifer May-Parker, after initially offering his approval.

Particularly disconcerting is the senator’s apparent refusal to heed his own words uttered  back in 2005, when he told his colleagues that “denying judicial nominees of both parties, who seek to serve their country, an up-or-down vote, simply is not fair.  It was certainly not the intention of our Founding Fathers when they designed and created this very institution.”

With no new nominee in the hopper, the Eastern District — which is also close to the top of judicial districts having the most residents per judgeship — will continue to trudge along with a caseload being handled by three active sitting judges with the part-time help of three judges on senior status — the youngest of whom is 75.