RALEIGH -- Federal judges declined Thursday to strike down the latest edition of North Carolina congressional district boundaries being used in next week's primary elections.
A three-judge panel denied the objections filed by attorneys for voters who initially sued in 2013 to challenge the majority-black 1st and 12th Districts. The judges in February agreed the two districts were illegal racial gerrymanders and told the General Assembly to redraw lines within two weeks. Republican redistricting leaders said they didn't use racial demographics in drawing the new plan.
Lawmakers delayed the March 15 congressional primary to this coming Tuesday, when primaries will be held in 11 of North Carolina's 13 districts. In-person early voting began May 26.
The plaintiffs argued in court filings that the new boundaries also were unconstitutional and should be rejected, and asked the judges to redraw the lines themselves. Writing for the panel, U.S. Circuit Judge Roger Gregory determined that those who sued hadn't sufficiently offered a legal theory why the new plan violates their voting rights.
And Gregory wrote that the judges weren't able at this time to resolve the voters' allegations that GOP leaders created an illegal partisan gerrymander with the new map instead. Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, a redistricting leader at the legislature, said in February the new maps reflected "a political gerrymander" constructed toward keeping the Republicans' 10-3 advantage within the state's congressional delegation.
"The court is very troubled by these representations," Gregory wrote. "Nevertheless, it is unclear whether a partisan-gerrymander claim is justiciable given existing precedent."
Attorneys representing legislative leaders told the panel the new boundaries complied with their February court ruling and that they weren't illegal gerrymanders. Partisan considerations can play a role in redistricting. Other criteria were used, including district compactness and minimizing the number of counties and precincts split by district lines.
"I'm very pleased that once again a judicial panel has turned back the constant leftist political efforts to win in the courtroom when they can't win in the legislature or at the ballot box," Lewis said in an interview late Thursday.
Gregory, also writing for U.S. District Judges William Osteen and Max Cogburn, made clear Thursday's denial "does not constitute or imply an endorsement of, or foreclose any additional challenges" to the updated plan.
Scott Falmlen, a spokesman for the plaintiffs, said earlier Thursday that those who sued are disappointed by the ruling and are reviewing the opinion further.
The original map approved by the General Assembly in 2011 included 1st and 12th Districts that had black voting-age populations above 50 percent. The judges ruled Feb. 5 the mapmakers weren't justified in using race so much in drawing the two districts. The black voting-age population in the new 1st District is about 45 percent and about 35 percent in the new 12th.
All 13 districts were adjusted during a special session called after the Feb. 5 court ruling.