RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Federal judges struck down late Friday two majority black congressional districts in North Carolina, saying race was the predominant factor in drawing those lines but state legislators lacked justification in using that practice.
Two of the three judges on the redistricting panel hearing the 2013 lawsuit agreed the size and composition of both the 1st and 12th Districts violated the Constitution's equal protection provision and must be redrawn.
The judges ordered the General Assembly to come up with new boundaries by Feb. 19, although Republican lawmakers who helped shepherd North Carolina's congressional map through the legislature in 2011 said a swift appeal was coming. The state could seek a delay at the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
North Carolina congressional primaries are scheduled March 15, with mail-in absentee ballots already being turned in. Other adjoining districts would have to be adjusted, too.
"The trial court's 11th-hour decision that throws an election already under way into turmoil," GOP Rep. David Lewis and Sen. Bob Rucho, chairmen of General Assembly redistricting committees, said in a release, suggesting a primary delay was possible without intervention. "This decision could do far more to disenfranchise North Carolina voters than anything alleged in this case."
Still, the ruling marked the first time judges had struck down specific districts drawn by GOP legislators during this round of congressional and legislative redistricting. There are two other pending legal cases alleging illegal racial gerrymandering. The 2011 lines, which were initially signed off on after review by the U.S. Justice Department, have helped Republicans expanded their majorities at the General Assembly and within the state's congressional delegation.
Friday's ruling "is a huge victory in our fight against 21st century racism and discrimination," said the Rev. William Barber of the state NAACP, which has sued in state court over the maps.
The 1st District, which covers all or portions of 24 eastern counties stretching from Elizabeth City to Durham, is represented by Rep. G.K. Butterfield. The 12th District, which stretches like an arch along the Interstate 85 corridor between Charlotte and Greensboro, is represented by Rep. Alma Adams. Both are Democrats.
Those who sued said it made no sense for Republican lawmakers to increase the majority black voting age populations — to 53 percent in the 1st and 51 percent in the 12th — when the districts already had elected black lawmakers for more than 20 years. Both districts were below 50 percent in the previous round of redistricting.
State attorneys argued that race wasn't the predominant motive for forming either district — rather political advantage in the 12th and avoiding legal challenges under the federal Voting Rights Act in the 1st.
For example, mapmakers said they moved more people who supported President Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election into the 12th District and moved out those who supported John McCain to make surrounding districts more Republican. Such shifting of voters is used elsewhere to make districts less competitive. But critics call that gerrymandering that becomes illegal when black voters are packed into districts and lose their ability to elect their favored candidate.
U.S. Circuit Judge Roger Gregory, writing the primary opinion, said the voters who sued had shown race played too large a role in forming the boundaries given the high level of scrutiny such redistricting techniques require.
In the 12th District, the court "does not find credible the defendants' purported rationale that politics was the ultimate goal," Gregory wrote. As for the 1st District, he added, "the legislators had no basis — let alone a strong basis — to believe that an inflexible racial floor of 50 percent plus one person was necessary."
U.S. District Judge Max Coburn agreed with Gregory's opinion but wrote to lament "how unfettered gerrymandering is negatively impacting our republican form of government." District Judge William Osteen wrote that he believed the plaintiffs had proven race had predominated in drawing the 1st District lines but not the 12th District boundaries.