Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

New redistricting lawsuit filed over four Wake County legislative districts

A new redistricting lawsuit has been filed in state court, this time challenging the constitutionality of four state House districts in Wake County.

The same districts were challenged in the racial gerrymandering case, North Carolina v. Covington, based on a state constitution prohibition on mid-decade redistricting — lawmakers were accused of redrawing districts they didn’t have to during a court-ordered remedial map-making process.

A special master redrew those districts and the U.S. District Court ordered they be used in this year’s elections, but the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the districts, likely because they involved issues of state law, not federal law.

GOP lawmakers at the time argued that if the plaintiffs wanted to litigate issues of state law, they should file a lawsuit in state court. Plaintiffs in a similar racial gerrymandering case pending at the state level then tried to resolve the issue, but a three-judge panel agreed a week ago that a new lawsuit was necessary.

The new lawsuit was filed on behalf of North Carolina NAACP, the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, Democracy North Carolina, North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute and four individual plaintiff-voters from Wake County.

“Voters in North Carolina have a state constitutional right to have their legislative districts changed only once a decade,” said Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney at SCSJ and lead attorney in the case. “This is an important protection in state law — one that many states don’t have — and its clear purpose is to prevent the ills of gerrymandering and political gamesmanship present here.”

The lawsuit asks that the four state House Districts in Wake County be returned to their 2011 boundaries in time for 2018 state legislative elections. The primary election is scheduled for May 8, and legislative candidates have only until the end of the month to file elections paperwork.

“North Carolinians have not been able to vote in constitutional state legislative districts this decade,” said Janet Hoy, co-President of the League of Women Voters of NC. “Lawmakers have dodged their obligations to enact fair districts time and time again. That will not deter us from continuing to push fair districts for voters that comply with the state and federal constitutions.”

There also was a House district in Mecklenburg County challenged on the state constitution violation grounds in the Covington case, but it is not included in this lawsuit.

Education, News

After Florida school massacre, hundreds rally in Raleigh for gun control

Zainab Antepli speaks at Tuesday’s gun control rally.

“I am 13 years old. I should be worried about what Netflix show I want to watch next, not a plan of escape from a public place.”

Sandra Gonzalez-Parral, an eighth grader from Wake County, was speaking to hundreds who gathered outside Pullen Memorial Baptist Church Tuesday in Raleigh to demand gun control legislation from state and federal lawmakers.

Zainab Antepli, another Wake County student, offered a fiery denunciation of school violence and anti-gun control politicians that stirred the crowd.

“We are calling for common sense,” said Antepli. “We are calling for adults to act like adults.”

The rally was emotional, hopeful and seething at the same time, as North Carolina K-12 students lit candles in memory of the 17 people who died in a mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school last week. Afterwards, they marched down Hillsborough Street to the state capitol in downtown Raleigh, holding signs that alternately skewered legislators and gun culture.

“Thoughts and prayers cannot bring back those students to their families,” said Zoe Nichols, a student at Broughton High in Raleigh.

Tuesday’s rally was one of a number of massive, student-led protests cropping up since a 19-year-old  allegedly used an assault rifle to gun down teenagers and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High a week ago.

Protesters are planning multiple events in March, including campus walk-outs and a national march in Washington, D.C., to advocate for change in the nation’s gun laws, even as gun rights groups push back against any restrictions.

Speakers on Tuesday talked about mental health awareness, but saved the most anger for the NRA and politicians such as Republican senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, who were reportedly among the largest beneficiaries of NRA contributions in the last election. 

Zoe Nichols, of Raleigh, addresses the rally Tuesday.

“We are watching you,” said Rev. Nancy Petty, pastor at Pullen Memorial. “We are paying attention and we demand change.”

“Once again our national leaders have failed us,” added Bryan Lee, Pullen Memorial’s youth minister. “Once again our state leaders have failed us.”

State leaders signaled their intent to at least discuss school safety in the coming weeks, with N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore announcing the launch of a new legislative committee geared toward possible legislation.

Yet the GOP-controlled General Assembly seems unlikely to approve any stringent gun restrictions in the coming days, even as Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, called on lawmakers to take action.

Legislators reportedly may talk over a proposal to arm school personnel, a controversial suggestion lobbed by Rep. Larry Pittman, a Cabarrus County Republican, last week.

Gov. Roy Cooper

Cooper said Tuesday that he spoke to his daughters after the Parkland shooting, and millennials have “had enough of this.”

“It is time to step up and do something,” said Cooper. “It is time to make sure that we look at all options, that we strengthen background checks. There is just no reason why someone with this background that people knew about should be able to go in and buy an (AR-15) assault rifle.”



Rumors of white supremacist rally spurs concerns, preparations at UNC

UNC students will rally this afternoon to oppose a rumored white nationalist demonstration on campus.

The rally, at 2 p.m. outside the South Building administration offices, comes in reaction to an email received by a faculty member who who says he was confronted and threatened by alt-right activists outside his office last week.

According to an email sent by Dwayne Dixon, a teaching assistant professor in the Asian Studies department, a pair of men chased him down an academic building hallway last week, trying to provoke him into violence while videotaping him.

“They were video recording me with a phone the whole time and were clearly trying to provoke a reaction they could use to smear me as a ‘violent antifa,’” Dixon wrote.

Dixon wrote that one of the men was Noel Fritsch, a conservative campaign consultant.

Fritsch, a self-described “unsolicited accountability partner to elected officials” and “political lackey”  tweeted that he was assaulted by Dixon on Feb. 7.

Dixon reported the incident to the UNC Police, who have been investigating since. Read more

Environment, News

With House Bill 189 on the agenda, today’s River Quality Committee meeting will be long — and yes, interesting

Bring snacks and a thermos of coffee, because today’s House Select Committee on River Quality meeting could be epic.

Starting at 9:30 a.m. and scheduled for four and half hours, the meeting will cover the latest developments — including enforcement actions against Chemours– on the various GenX spills and related spikes in the water near the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority treatment plant.

The committee will also hear from UNC Wilmington and the CFPUA on their work since the passage of House Bill 56 last August. UNC-W received a $250,000 appropriation in that legislation, and the CFPUA got another $185,000 to study the behavior of perfluorinated compounds in water and treatment methods to remove it.

The appropriation was controversial because a month earlier Gov. Roy Cooper, the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Health and Human Services had requested $2.3 million in funding to tackle the GenX crisis; GOP lawmakers rebuffed them.

The whereabouts of the state’s high-resolution mass spectrometers, difficult to say and even more difficult to use, should be more interesting than it sounds. The Senate version of House Bill 189 failed to appropriate any money to DEQ to purchase the very sensitive equipment, which is necessary to test for GenX and other emerging and unknown compounds. Instead Senators gave $2 million to the NC Collaboratory, a think tank at UNC Chapel Hill created by the legislature, to find these spectrometers and the personnel to operate them within the UNC System.

However, considering the human health issues at stake,  it’s unclear if the EPA would approve of say, a first-year grad student testing drinking water samples in a high-resolution spectrometer. There could be legal and liability issues if, for example, the tests were run incorrectly or failed to adhere to other quality controls.

And, it turns out, at least two state agencies have high-resolution spectrometers, although DEQ isn’t one of them. (The DEQ water sciences lab has been described as “looking like it’s from 1985.”) The Department of Agriculture has three, but they are being used to test for pesticides in human and animal food. If DEQ were to borrow or repurpose the equipment, then the Agriculture Department couldn’t do its work.

DHHS has seven such spectrometers: six are being used by toxicologists to test for the presence of pharmaceuticals in people who have died, presumably of causes related to the ingestion of legal drugs. The seventh high-resolution spectrometer is supposed to be used solely to test for chemical warfare agents in the water. DHHS received a grant from the EPA in 2011 for this spectrometer, with its uses very specific and defined.

DEQ would have to ask the EPA for permission to repurpose the spectrometer for GenX and emerging compounds. If the EPA decides the equipment is no longer necessary to test for bioterrorism threats — a Big If — then DEQ could access the machine. But the agency still needs roughly $480,000 in recurring funds to pay for the personnel to be certified on the equipment and to devote their time to testing for these compounds in the rivers and lakes, statewide.

The final agenda item is a discussion of House Bill 189. the first version unanimously passed the House, and then was upended by the Senate, which adjourned without voting on the measure. Then they rewrote much of the bill, passed it, only to — touché — be given the same treatment by the House, which didn’t vote on it.

By the time the short session convenes on May 16, it will be nearly a year since the Star-News broke the story of GenX in Wilmington’s drinking water. And in that 11 months, no substantive legislation has passed that could remove the chemical and other emerging contaminants from drinking water.

The meeting will be held in Room 643 of the Legislative Office Building, and the audio will be streamed online.


Co-chairs discuss scope of legislative committee to study school safety

House Speaker Tim Moore announced the appointments Tuesday to a new House Select Committee on School Safety.  Moore says the legislative panel will seek expert input on securing the state’s classrooms and education facilities in the wake of a shooting in Parkland, Florida last week that left 17 dead and more than a dozen wounded.

Rep. John Torbett and Rep. David Lewis outlined the scope of the committee’s work at a press conference in Shelby.

Recommendations are expected by the short session in May.

The following House members will serve on the Select Committee on School Safety

Representative David Lewis, Co-Chair Representative Nelson Dollar Representative Brenden Jones
Representative John Torbett, Co-Chair Representative Jeffrey Elmore Representative  Donny Lambeth
Representative John Faircloth, Vice-Chair Representative Elmer Floyd Representative Marvin Lucas
Representative John Bell Representative Rosa Gill Representative Chris Malone
Representative Larry Bell Representative Holly Grange Representative Allen McNeill
Representative Mary Ann Black Representative Pricey Harrison Representative Rodney Moore
Representative Jamie Boles Representative Kelly Hastings Representative Garland Pierce
Representative William Brawley Representative Cody Henson Representative Stephen Ross
Representative Dana Bumgardner Representative Yvonne Holley Representative Jason Saine
Representative Justin Burr Representative Craig Horn Representative Sarah Stevens
Representative Carla Cunningham Representative Pat Hurley Representative Larry Strickland
Representative Ted Davis Representative Verla Insko Representative Harry Warren
Representative Jimmy Dixon Representative Darren Jackson Representative Donna White
Representative Josh Dobson Representative Linda Johnson