Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

U.S. Supreme Court won’t wade into partisan gerrymandering; NC 2016 congressional map stands

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.

“The initial difficulty in settling on a ‘clear, manageable and politically neutral’ test for fairness is that it is not even clear what fairness looks like in this context,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the 5-4 opinion. “There is a large measure of ‘unfairness’ in any winner-take-all system.

“Any judicial decision on what is ‘fair’ in this context would be an ‘unmoored determination’ of the sort characteristic of a political question beyond the competence of the federal courts.”

The 5-4 opinion along party lines drives a nail into the coffin of an issue that has long plagued North Carolina and other state legislatures that use political data as a major consideration in the redistricting process to entrench its political party in power.

Attorneys argued the sibling cases at the high court in March, Rucho v. Common Cause and Rucho v. League of Women Voters, in March, but partisan gerrymandering has been an ongoing battle in North Carolina for years. The nonjusticiable ruling also applies to the Democratic partisan gerrymandering case from Maryland, Benisek v. Lamone.

Today’s outcome has been described by voting rights advocates and attorneys arguing against partisan gerrymandering as the worst possible outcome for democracy.

All four Democrat-appointed justices dissented in the opinion, which Justice Elena Kagan wrote.

“Of all times to abandon the Court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one,” she wrote. “The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the Court’s role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections.”

Partisan gerrymandering also is being challenged in the state courts – Common Cause v. Lewis is set for trial July 15. If the case makes it up to the state Supreme Court, there is still a chance partisan gerrymandering could be outlawed in North Carolina.

This is a breaking news story. You can read an updated version here.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Democracy NC students lobby legislature for change: ‘We care about the right to vote’

College students working as part of the students’ Democracy Summer internship program with voting rights group Democracy North Carolina launched a “For The People” Campaign on Wednesday to call for pro-democracy reforms. (Photo by Aditi Kharod)

 

On Wednesday morning, a group of summer interns with Democracy NC gathered in front of the legislative building to roll out their “For the People” campaign.

The students encouraged North Carolina citizens to contact their lawmakers in support of a variety of pro-democracy reforms, including flexible early voting, nonpartisan redistricting, and increasing access to voting.

The group specifically called for the repeal of Senate Bill 325, passed in June of 2018, which limits early voting site hours.

“We know that if Early Voting flexibility and access isn’t restored now, alongside the removal of the new strict photo ID requirement to vote, it could mean a ‘recipe for disaster’ for North Carolina voters like me in 2020,” said Gaby Romero, a student at Appalachian State University in Boone. “For voters in rural western North Carolina — from all parties — these attacks shut them out of the most important form of participation in a democracy.”

The college students shared stories from their campuses about how gerrymandering and limits to voting access have hurt young voters, and laid out a multi-part agenda with the goal of lobbying lawmakers to use current proposals to prevent confusion and chaos for voters ahead of next year’s elections.

“We’re here to say that we care about our rights. That we care about the right to vote,” said Tyler Walker, an activist who works with Democracy NC in Winston-Salem. “Any barrier to voting is a threat to your personal freedoms. Any barrier to voting is a threat to you directly. It is a threat to your civil rights. It is a threat to your human rights. It is a threat to your ability to exercise your right to vote, to exercise the freedoms you believe in. It is a threat. And I’m here to tell the legislature today that we will not be threatened.”

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Tomorrow: The wait will be over for SCOTUS rulings on gerrymandering, Census

The wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on partisan gerrymandering will be over tomorrow.

Chief Justice John Roberts announced Wednesday the high court’s final five opinions would come down at 10 a.m. Thursday — they include the highly anticipated North Carolina sibling cases on partisan gerrymandering (are political considerations in the redistricting process ever unconstitutional?) and the case on the legality of the 2020 Census citizenship question.

Both are cases that affect the state and have potential to affect the entire nation, but the latter became a little more complicated after new evidence of racial intent was brought to light from the Hofeller files — documents that GOP renowned mapmaker Thomas Hofeller’s daughter turned over after his death to the plaintiffs in a state partisan gerrymandering case.

The sibling cases are Rucho v. Common Cause and Rucho v. League of Women Voters; the citizenship case is Commerce Department v. New York. The other cases the court is expected to rule on are Benisek v. Lamone, the Maryland partisan gerrymandering case, Mitchell v. Wisconsin and Carpenter v. Murphy.

There have been 64 opinions from the high court this term, many of which have included interesting lineups. Kimberly Robinson, of Bloomberg Law, reported on Twitter this morning that every Republican-appointed justice on the court has crossed over this term to give Democratic-appointed justices a win in closely-divided cases.

Stay tuned Thursday morning for the final Supreme Court opinions this term. Follow reporter Melissa Boughton on Twitter for live updates as the opinions are announced.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Voting rights groups approve of new (but old) Wake districts, disapprove of process

 

Voting rights groups commended lawmakers for approving a redistricting plan Monday in four Wake County House districts that reverts them back to their configuration as they were drawn in 2011, but also criticized them for redrawing the districts in the first place.

Lawmakers initially redrew the districts, House District 36, 37, 40 and 41 as part of a remedial process to fix racially gerrymandered districts. A three-judge panel, however, later ruled the specific Wake districts that were changed as part of that process violated the North Carolina Constitution’s prohibition on mid-decade redistricting — lawmakers didn’t have the authority to redraw the districts while fixing other districts.

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) represented plaintiffs in N.C. NAACP v. Lewis, the case that led to the most recent redraw.

“For this entire decade, Wake County voters have been consistently denied the ability to vote in constitutional districts,” said Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney at SCSJ. “In 2011, they were forced into racially gerrymandered districts. Then in 2017, lawmakers tried to skirt the state constitution for partisan gain. The districts enacted today could and should have been put in place two years ago.

Plaintiffs in N.C. NAACP v. Lewis included the N.C. State Conference of NAACP Branches, the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, Democracy North Carolina, the A. Philip Randolph Institute of North Carolina, and four Wake County voters.

The redistricting plan enacted Monday was drawn by a court-appointed expert in 2017 as part of the remedial proceedings of a federal redistricting case, Covington v. North Carolina, in which the court found that 28 state legislative districts drawn in 2011 were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.

The court’s map-drawer respected the North Carolina constitutional prohibition on mid-decade redistricting, but the legislature objected to the federal court’s implementation of maps designed to comply with state law, arguing only a state court could do that. Ultimately, it took another lawsuit, N.C. NAACP v. Lewis, to order the legislature to enact a redistricting plan that did not violate the North Carolina constitutional prohibition on mid-decade redistricting.

“The adoption of the special master’s districts would not have been necessary if the legislature hadn’t engaged in gerrymandering in the first place, and if North Carolina instead had in place a system of nonpartisan redistricting,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause. “We call on state lawmakers to enact lasting reform this session that permanently takes redistricting power out of the hands of legislators and entrusts it with an independent body that will draw our voting maps in a nonpartisan fashion, with full transparency and robust public input. It’s time to end gerrymandering for good and establish fair redistricting now.”

Common Cause is involved in a state court case over partisan gerrymandering in the redistricting process. The group and SCSJ are also involved in the U.S. Supreme Court case over the same issue, which is expected to announce its opinion later this week.

A half-dozen bills have been filed this legislative session that would establish nonpartisan redistricting for North Carolina. However, legislative leaders have not yet allowed any of these proposals to be given a vote or even a hearing, despite broad, bipartisan support among North Carolina voters for redistricting reform.

Courts & the Law, News

U.S. Supreme Court upholds NC court ruling on 1992 family trust tax issue

The U.S Supreme Court did not issue its opinion this week on North Carolina’s partisan gerrymandering case, but it did uphold a state Supreme Court ruling Friday about the Kimberley Rice Kaestner 1992 Family Trust.

At issue in the case is whether states can tax a trust based on where the beneficiaries reside. The Kaestner Trust was established in New York to benefit Joseph Lee Rice III’s children. One of his daughters subsequently moved to North Carolina, and the state sought to tax the trust under a law that allowed it to tax any trust income that is for the benefit of a state resident.

North Carolina assessed a tax of more than $1.3 million for tax years 2005 through 2008 — during which time Kaestner had no right to, and did not receive, any distributions. Nor did the Trust have a physical presence, make any direct investments, or hold any real property in the state.

The trustee, a New York resident, paid the tax in protest and then sued the tax authority in North Carolina, the Department of Revenue. The state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the trust and the U.S. Supreme Court held “the presence of in-state beneficiaries alone does not empower a state to tax trust income that has not been distributed to the beneficiaries where the beneficiaries have no right to demand that income and are uncertain to receive it.”

Former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jackson authored the state opinion, and the high court decision case was unanimous, authored by Sonia Sotomayor. Read the U.S. Supreme Court opinion below.



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