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After more than 20 years on the state Supreme Court, Chief Justice Sarah Parker stepped down on Saturday, having reached the mandatory retirement age of 72 in August.

Her picture has already been removed from the court’s website, with one of the newly-appointed temporary chief, Justice Mark Martin, taking its place.

Her legacy drew praise from colleagues and contemporaries alike.

“Sarah is a quintessential professional,” former justice Bob Orr said in this post. “She has a sense of the history and tradition of the court as well as the system. She’s been a good chief justice in difficult times.”

Parker was mindful of those difficult times, especially near the end of her tenure, as the court itself became increasingly politicized and the state’s judicial system struggled under the weight of draconian budget cuts. She drew attention to both of those problems in her remarks to the state bar association this summer.

With her departure the court has just six justices serving — at least for this week.  Next week, Court of Appeals Judge Bob Hunter, Jr. will temporarily fill the spot vacated by Justice Martin.

Six is a tough number for parties awaiting a decision from the state’s highest court. If the justices are split three to three on an issue, then no decision follows. Rather, the decision of the court below stands.

And while the interim ascension of Judge Hunter will make seven, for all practical purposes nothing will change, as he’ll have to recuse himself from ruling in cases on which he sat in the Court of Appeals or in which he hasn’t participated while on the Supreme Court.

That includes the 15 or so cases argued this past year for which a decision is still pending.

And among those are some of the weightiest and most controversial issues facing the court this term: redistricting and the Racial Justice Act.

In those cases, with this composition on the court, it’s at least possible that with six, you get nothing.

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Credit: Governing magazine.

Credit: Governing magazine.

As the case challenging North Carolina’s 2011 redistricting plan languishes in state Supreme Court, two similar cases out of Alabama that may bear directly on the legality of our state maps are set for argument in the U.S. Supreme Court this fall.

In Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama and Alabama Democratic Conference v. Alabamaparties are challenging the legality of “packing” minority voters into districts where they already are in political control, reducing their impact elsewhere.

As summarized by SCOTUSblog:

Both [cases] challenge decisions by a federal district court that upheld (by a split two-to-one vote) a new boundary map that kept the  same number of state senate and state house districts that previously had majorities of African-American voters, but added to those majorities in almost every district.  Sponsors of the plan insisted they were doing so to obey their obligations to protect minority voters’ political strength under federal voting rights law, but the challengers argued that this was an unconstitutional use of racial gerrymandering.

In both the Alabama cases and the case pending here (Dickson v. Rucho), state lawmakers have argued that the Voting Rights Act required them to redraw districts and pack African-American voters into districts — even though those voters, while still a minority of the voting age population in their previous districts, had been electing their candidates of choice.

The viability of that argument will be before the nation’s highest court in the fall, and yesterday — in a friend-of-the-court brief filed there — attorneys for the parties challenging the North Carolina maps urged the justices to reject redistricting on that basis as “an unconstitutional use of race that must be corrected.”

Here is an excerpt from that brief:

This Court reiterated in Bartlett v. Strickland the well-established principle that the “‘moral imperative of racial neutrality is the driving force of the Equal Protection Clause,’ and racial classifications are permitted only ‘as a last resort.’” The Court further cautioned that “[o]ur holding also should not be interpreted to entrench majority-minority districts by statutory command, for that, too, could pose constitutional concerns.”

The North Carolina legislature, like the Alabama legislature, misapplied these principles in the 2011 redistricting by imposing a racial proportionality target for the number of majority-black districts and requiring every district to meet a specific black population percentage target. As in Alabama, the North Carolina General Assembly believed that these fixed racial targets were required by the Voting Rights Act.

Ignoring decades of progress in increasing opportunities for black voters to participate in the political process, in 2011 the General Assembly created more majority-black districts than ever before, thereby entrenching racial stereotypes and tearing apart effective cross-racial coalitions that had evolved over time. The General Assembly’s use of racial targets in redistricting was justified only by the mistaken belief that they were required by federal law. In addition to North Carolina and Alabama, there is only one other redistricting case, currently pending in Virginia, in which it is alleged that the Legislature admittedly and explicitly used racial targets in drawing districts.

Thus, what is needed here is not a revision of voting rights jurisprudence; nor will reversal of the trial court result in significant upheaval of redistricting maps throughout jurisdictions formerly covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Rather, the misinterpretation of the Voting Rights Act’s requirements resulting in the unfair imposition of racial targets in redistricting in a few states is an unconstitutional use of race that must be corrected.

Read the full brief here.

 

 

 

 

 

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The good people at Common Cause NC will be holding a news conference in Charlotte today. This is from the announcement:

“Former Charlotte mayor Richard Vinroot, a Republican and former Raleigh mayor Charles Meeker, a Democrat will be announcing today their partnership in seeking to end gerrymandering in North Carolina.

Both mayors want politics taken out of the redistricting process and will be creating a new coalition called
North Carolinians to End Gerrymandering Now

When: News conference- noon (Thursday, May 8, 2014)
Where: Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson law office board room, suite 1900 101 N. Tryon Street, downtown Charlotte”

Let’s hope the event (and notably the presence of longtime conservative Republican Richard Vinroot) has the desired impact — especially on the conservative state senate which has blocked redistricting reform previously.

 

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GerrymanderingNorth Carolina is a large and complicated state with a population approaching 10 million. Still, even the most unrepentant defenders of the the state’s gerrymandered political map will have to admit that the following fact borders on the absurd:

During next month’s primary election, there will be 3,069 different ballots. According to North Carolina General Assembly Senior Counsel Gerry Cohen, Iredell County — population 162,000 — will have 249. This is simply ridiculous.

Here’s an idea for combating voter “fraud” (and general chaos in North Carolina elections): Simplify our voting districts by doing away with gerrymandering and enacting non-partisan redistricting ASAP.

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Thirteen Wake County residents and two community organizations today appealed the dismissal of their lawsuit challenging the redistricting of the Wake County Board of Education districts as violative of the one-person, one-vote requirements of the United States and North Carolina Constitutions. 

The individuals and groups contend that the legislature overpopulated their urban districts while leaving adjacent, more rural districts underpopulated – thus diluting the urban vote.

In his ruling in March, U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle found that the population disparities in the new districts did not reach levels necessary to support a challenge under one-person, one-vote provisions.

He also found that at its core the challenge to the new districts amounted to a claim of political gerrymandering which the courts will not consider:

All of the factors which plaintiffs say point to taint of arbitrariness or discrimination lead back to politics. Plaintiffs allege a favoritism of rural areas of the county over urban areas and they allege the targeting of democratic incumbents by the placement of three democratic incumbents into two republican leaning districts with republican incumbents. However, plaintiffs admit that the end result is political advantage. Plaintiffs do not argue that the population deviations are a result of discrimination on the basis of race or some other suspect classification. They claim only an impermissible political bias.

But the plaintiffs in the case disagree.

“The federal courts have made clear that favoring rural voters over urban voters, or favoring one political party over another are not legitimate justifications for deviations from the one-person, one-vote principle,” their attorney Anita Earls, Executive Director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said. “This case is not a partisan gerrymandering claim – it is a one-person, one-vote claim that must be taken seriously by all Wake County residents interested in fair elections.”

Read Judge Boyle’s order dismissing the complaint in Wright, et al. v. State of North Carolina et al. here.