Judges strike down 2 North Carolina congressional districts

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A panel ordered the map be redrawn (WTVD)

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.

    "We are surprised and disappointed by the trial court's eleventh hour decision that throws an election already underway into turmoil. Should this decision be allowed to stand, North Carolina voters will no longer know how or when they will get to cast their primary ballots in the presidential, gubernatorial, congressional and legislative elections. And thousands of absentee voters may have already cast ballots that could be tossed out.

    This decision could do far more to disenfranchise North Carolina voters than anything alleged in this case. We are confident our state Supreme Court made the right decision when it upheld the maps drawn by the General Assembly and approved by the Obama Justice Department, and we will move swiftly to appeal this decision." - Sen. Bob Rucho (R-Mecklenburg) and Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett), Chairmen of the House and Senate Redistricting Committees.

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.

"This unanimous Court decision vindicates the record we first brought to the attention of the public -- that the state legislature under Berger and Tillis had drawn racially biased unconstitutional voting district. This 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.

"We don't know what the impacts of this decision will be yet, but for now I am concentrating on doing my job as the Congresswoman for the 12th District, and running a campaign on the basis of my strong record of doing what is right for North Carolina and my District." Rep Alma Adams, (D) 12th District

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 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 Cogburn 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.

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