Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Judges: Wake legislative districts likely unconstitutional but election already underway

A three-judge panel refused to stop the use of some legislative districts in Wake County in the upcoming election despite acknowledging that they are probably unconstitutional.

The order denying the preliminary injunction in NAACP v. Lewis was released Friday afternoon. The three judges — Paul Ridgeway, Joseph Crosswhite and Alma Hinton — agreed on the decision unanimously.

“Enjoining the use of the challenged districts during the pendency of this litigation would necessarily halt ongoing Wake County House of Representatives races, and more importantly, would interrupt voting by citizens already underway,” the order states.

The plaintiffs (including the NAACP) in the case, represented by Allison Riggs, the senior voting rights attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, are challenging four Wake County legislative districts based on a state constitution prohibition on mid-decade redistricting — lawmakers are accused of redrawing districts they didn’t have to during a court-ordered remedial map-making process.

The redrawing of districts stems from the racial gerrymandering case, North Carolina v. Covington.

Phil Strach, an attorney for the legislative defendants, has argued that the court-ordered redistricting process gave lawmakers the authority to redraw the districts in question, and that there is no court precedent that states otherwise.

The merits of the mid-decade redistricting case have not yet been argued but the three-judge panel said in its order that “in considering the pleadings, arguments and records established thus far, the court concludes, for the purposes of this motion, that the plaintiffs have demonstrated a reasonable likelihood of success.”

It was in considering and balancing the equities of enjoining the districts that the judges decided a preliminary injunction was not warranted.

Riggs said the plaintiffs were gratified that the court recognized the legislature likely acted unconstitutionally and indicated that they will keep fighting.

“We will aggressively litigate this case to final resolution to ensure there are fair districts in place by the time voters go to the ballot box in 2020,” she said. “Basic legal principles of equality demand that voters in Wake County have the same right to vote in constitutional districts as every other resident in the state.”

The candidate filing period for legislative elections ended Feb. 28 and absentee voting began March 19. Election Day for the primary is May 8 and the ballots have already been printed, according to the court’s order.

The House districts that are challenged are 36, 37, 40 and 41. Seats in those districts are currently held by Representatives Nelson Dollar, Linda Hunt Williams, Joe John and Gale Adcock.

The plaintiffs challenged the Wake districts immediately following their redraw. The federal court upheld a special master’s rendering of the districts but the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down, likely because the claims involved state law, not federal law. That eventually led to the current NAACP case, filed in state court.

It’s not yet known when the trial on the merits of the case will be set. You can read the full court order below.

18 Cvs 2322 Ncnaacp v Lewis_order on Pi by NC Policy Watch on Scribd

Courts & the Law, News

Common Cause hosting zig-zaggy 5K to raise awareness about gerrymandering

Common Cause NC will host a Gerrymandering 5K in May to raise awareness about this district and others in Raleigh.

Have you ever wondered about that claw shaped voting district that encompasses part of downtown Raleigh? Maybe you’ve asked yourself who lives along that little square protrusion at the bottom or what businesses line the district’s jagged edges.

You don’t have to wonder any more. Common Cause North Carolina is hosting a Gerrymandering 5K to answer all your burning questions and raise awareness about the political phenomenon.

The 5K course will follow the border of the gerrymandered lines between House districts 33 and 34, with the exception of going down Jones Street by the legislative building, according to Common Cause Executive Director Bob Phillips.

This is the Gerrymandering 5K route that runners and walkers will take May 12. (Provided by Common Cause)

It will start at 10 a.m. at Trophy Brewing on Morgan Street, a sponsor of the event which also just so happens to have a very large anti-gerrymandering mural on the back of its building.

Registration is $30, which covers the cost of a race medal and post-race beer. There will be an after-party at Trophy.

The League of Women Voters held an identical event in Asheville last year that drew hundreds of people and garnered national attention.

North Carolinians have been no stranger to the topic of gerrymandering. Lawmakers have been battling racial and partisan gerrymandering issues in court for years.

Residents this year will vote in legislative districts that have partially been drawn by a court-appointed special master to correct racial gerrymanders. Some districts are still being litigated in state court, including one affected by the 5K district.

Courts & the Law, News

Governor appoints Joe John as head of Courts Commission after Duane Hall resigns

Rep. Joe John

Rep. Joe John (D-Wake)

Rep. Duane Hall (D-Wake) quietly resigned as head of the North Carolina Courts Commission a month ago, shortly after NC Policy Watch detailed sexual harassment allegations against him.

Gov. Roy Cooper this week appointed Rep. Joe John (D-Wake) to take his place.

John said in a phone interview this week that he was honored by the Governor’s appointment. He is a first-term representative but had a 25-plus year career within the court system — he’s been a prosecutor, defense lawyer, district court judge, chief district court judge, superior court judge and court of appeals judge.

“I pretty well covered the waterfront and I have broad experience and overview as to how the court system operates,” John said. “I’m probably as familiar as anyone with the things that courts do well and the areas where probably there could be some improvement.”

The Commission, which has around 30 members, is tasked with evaluating changes to the state’s court system and making recommendations to the General Assembly.

The state court workload is one thing John hopes to address during his tenure.

“One of the issues faced not only by courts, but all agencies of state government is having more to do than people to do the work,” he said. “I don’t see any indication that that has necessarily changed, so we’ll be doing our best to hopefully make some recommendations down the road.”

He plans to send a letter to court groups and stakeholders this week to announce his appointment and solicit feedback on other areas the Commission should review.

John also mentioned potentially having the commission look at the state’s bail bond system, given the negative attention it has garnered since a series of NC Policy Watch articles on the subject.

One area he doesn’t expect to delve into is judicial redistricting, which is expected to be voted on in the upcoming short session.

GOP lawmakers have introduced several maps in the last year that redraw judicial and prosecutorial districts, which would change the way judges and prosecutors across the state are elected. The effort has been met with widespread opposition, not just from Democrats but from court officials and experts.

John said the Commission made a recommendation in the fall that the General Assembly didn’t formally respond to, so it’s best to wait and see what happens during the session.

“The plans and the intentions for the short session, I think, are already in place, even though they may not necessarily be public at this point,” he said. “Trying to reconstitute the courts commission in the short period of time between now and the short session, without knowing specifically what actions are intended, would probably not be a practical use of the commissioners time.”

John said he expects the Commission will meet after the short session for planning and goal-setting.

“The commission has been sort of quiet here late and I think it will probably take a little while to get folks back up to speed and so forth,” he said.

He added that Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Surry, Wilkes), who was at the helm before Hall, did a good job reviving the commission, which had, prior to her appointment, been fairly dormant.

Courts & the Law, Education, News

N.C. Supreme Court to hear arguments in pivotal Halifax County school case Monday

Mark Dorosin, attorney for the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights

A potentially precedent-setting legal case challenging Halifax County commissioners over decrepit school facilities will go before the state Supreme Court Monday.

Oral arguments will be heard in Silver, et al v. the Halifax County Board of Commissioners, which began in 2015 when parents and community members in the eastern North Carolina county claimed the maintenance of three racially-distinct school systems in the relatively small county created a system of haves and have-nots.

It’s a pivotal court case because it may determine who holds the blame for inequality in the local districts—local boards or the state. Historically, the state funds K-12 operations while local governments are responsible for infrastructure.

Thus far, courts have held that it’s the state that’s responsible for the conditions in some Halifax County schools.

Halifax schools are also at the center of the long-running Leandro court case, which found that the state needed to do more to equalize school funding between wealthy and poor counties.

Mark Dorosin with the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights is lead counsel in the Silver case.

A Policy Watch report last year detailed the claims made against county commissioners.

From last year’s report:

Crumbling ceilings. Failing air conditioning and heating systems. Broken down school buses. Mold infestations. Rodents scurrying through the hallways. Students forced to traipse over sewage from flooded toilets. Dismal academic performance year in and year out.

These are just some of the complaints parents are leveling in court against local government leaders in rural Halifax County, home to one of North Carolina’s most chronically under-performing public school districts and a key player in the state’s 23-year-old Leandro case over equity in school funding.

Yet a panel of North Carolina appeals court judges ruled this week that it’s the state government, and not the Halifax County Board of Commissioners, that’s responsible for the “serious problems” in the eastern North Carolina county.

“It’s disappointing,” says Mark Dorosin, managing attorney for the UNC Center for Civil Rights, which represented five Halifax students and their parents or legal guardians in this pivotal case.

It’s a damaging, but perhaps not decisive, setback for Dorosin’s clients, who hoped the courts would force county commissioners in Halifax to reconstruct three small, racially segregated school districts in the county that they blame for fundamental inequities in Halifax school funding.

Reached Tuesday, Brenda Sledge, one of those Halifax parents, said she was “shocked” by the decision.

Their case, Dorosin explains, targets, among other things, the county’s system of collecting and distributing local sales and use taxes, which they say has long favored one district more than others, a district composed of mostly white students.

Additionally, the poor state of some local school facilities—which, in North Carolina, are traditionally funded by local governments and not the state—contributes to a system that deprives some of a “sound basic education,” the legal benchmark set decades ago by the N.C. Supreme Court’s landmark Leandro decision.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

CANCELLED: Judicial redistricting, reform meeting re-set for end of month

If you were planning to delve back in to GOP lawmakers’ plans to redistrict the judiciary today, go ahead and cross it off your calendar.

The Joint Select Committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting cancelled it’s 1 p.m. meeting today and rescheduled it for 9:30 a.m. Friday, April 27.

There’s no word on why the meeting was cancelled and the committee co-chairs — Representatives Justin Burr (R-Stanly, Montgomery) and David Lewis (R-Harnett) and Senators Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg), Warren Daniel (R-Burke, Cleveland) and Bill Rabon (Bladen) — never responded to an email asking why the meeting was scheduled in the first place.

The short legislative session this year starts May 16, and it is expected that lawmakers will vote on some sort of judicial reform, whether it be new judicial maps or a merit selection plan that would rid the state of judicial elections altogether.

Committee meetings are open to the public.