Our View: Redrawn districts should be legal, even if primary delayed

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North Carolina lawmakers’ intent to hurriedly redraw congressional district lines before a Friday deadline is looking more like another illegal gerrymander, doomed to fail judicial muster.

GOP lawmakers no doubt were hoping that Chief Justice John Roberts would issue an order staying the U.S. Appeals Court’s Feb. 5 ruling striking down the majority black 1st and 12th Districts they drew in 2011. The stay would allow next month’s primaries to go forward as scheduled for all races on the state’s ballot, including those for Congress a three-judge panel put on hold after declaring two of the state’s congressional districts — including one represented by the region’s representative in Congress, G.K. Butterfield — illegal. The appellate court panel said the two districts were unlawful because mapmakers had relied too much on race in drawing them.

But it’s hard to see how Roberts can legitimately stay the lower court’s order now that Justice Antonin Scalia has died, and Roberts’ own court could potentially split 4-4 on the case. How could it be fair and just for primary elections to go forward using congressional district lines a federal court has said are illegal, if the only court in the country with the power to overrule that decision is now powerless to do so? If Supreme Court rulings end in 4-4 ties, the last court ruling on the matter — in this case the appellate court — is determinative.

The unfairness of Roberts issuing a stay now allowing North Carolina’s congressional elections to go forward on March 15 is even more glaring given Republicans in the U.S. Senate, including North Carolina’s own Richard Burr, have made clear they won’t entertain any nominees by President Obama for a successor to Scalia. Given Republicans’ obstruction, does that mean the unlawful congressional districts will have to stay in place until sometime well into 2017, after the next president is sworn in?

Yes, the timing of the federal court’s ruling is bad. The primary election is less than a month away and absentee ballots have already gone out and a number have been returned and accepted. Also, it will cost the state more money if it has to hold congressional primaries separate from the primary elections for governor, lieutenant governor, council of state member, state lawmaker and county commissioner.

None of those arguments trump, however, the plain fact that two of the districts the state aims to use to elect congressional candidates have been deemed illegal by a federal court. And because the lines of those two districts affect how the other 11 congressional districts are drawn, they, too, will have to be redrawn.

Not hearing from Roberts by Wednesday, state lawmakers embarked on what they described as “plan B” — redrawing the districts. Petulantly, however, members of a Republican-led committee in charge of the new maps said they did not plan to incorporate race into the new district lines. They said they would draw the new districts according to party affiliation, admitting their principal goal was to maintain Republicans’ 10-3 edge in the state’s congressional representation.

This approach almost certainly will also result in new maps that are unconstitutional, as Butterfield and others have pointed out. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires states to draw voting enclaves that do not harm the voting strength of minorities. Drawing districts that do not account for minorities at all or that decrease a minority’s chances of being elected to Congress almost certainly will be rejected by the federal courts. The appellate court said that in drawing the 1st and 12th congressional districts, state lawmakers had relied too much on race. They drew maps that diluted minority voting strength by packing them into several enclaves. What the court clearly did not say is that race shouldn’t play any role in the districts’ drawing.

If in fact that’s what lawmakers come up with — congressional districts that decrease the chances of Butterfield or another minority from being elected in the 1st or 12th congressional districts — we’d urge the judges on the appellate court panel to reject them and redraw the state’s congressional districts themselves. We’d also suggest the court delay the primary elections for Congress until May — the date currently set for primary runoff elections — to give themselves enough time to make sure fair maps are drawn.

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NC Districts

If you were seriously interested in the truth, you might mention that the 1st and 12th were originally drawn up by the democrat majority in the '90s. The R's might have tweaked them a little, but they're essentially the same. They were drawn up by court order, to ensure some minorities were elected.

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