From Supreme Court ruling a setback for minority voting rights in the South.
Supreme Court ruling a setback for minority voting rights in the South.
RALEIGH, N.C. — The Legislature will have to change its district boundaries a fourth time this decade based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision Monday involving racial gerrymandering and a state requirement barring districts from crossing over county boundaries.
The nation’s highest court upheld a 2007 state Supreme Court decision that found boundaries for a House district in Pender and New Hanover counties were illegal.
The decision means the General Assembly must change the House boundary map before the 2010 election cycle, handing another task to lawmakers already busy trying to narrow a projected budget gap of more than $3 billion for the fiscal year starting July 1.
House Speaker Joe Hackney, D-Orange, said he expects only significant changes will have to be made to three districts in the House to comply with Monday’s 5-4 ruling.
“I don’t think there’s any spillover effects,” Hackney said. “I think the impact of it is very limited.”
Rep. Paul Stam, the House minority leader, said there were other districts that Democrats should change before next year to comply with the ruling, although he couldn’t immediately identify them. But “the people who drew the districts want to change them as little as possible,” said Stam, R-Wake.
Redistricting experts say they expect the ruling likely will have a greater impact when the once-a-decade redrawing of boundaries for the House and Senate seats occurs in 2011, once data from the 2010 census is in.
The Legislature had to redraw district boundaries in 2001 and 2002, but a judge threw out the maps and ultimately create temporary boundaries for the 2002 elections. Another set of maps was approved by lawmakers in 2003 and has been used since the 2004 elections.
The justices’ split decision favored Pender County elected officials who originally sued in 2004 and determined a state isn’t required by the federal Voting Rights Act to draw electoral districts where black residents comprise less than half the voting-age population.
The court said such racial gerrymandering is required only if a district has a numerical majority of minority voters.
In the 18th House District, currently represented by Rep. Sandra Spaulding Hughes, D-New Hanover, the black voting-age population is 39 percent. The Legislature decided to split the district between Pender and New Hanover counties in 2003.
Lawyers for the current and former Pender County commissioners argued the split violated a provision of the North Carolina constitution discouraging district boundaries from crossing county lines and that all county residents should be placed in a single district.
“It’s taken awhile but we’ve got to where we wanted to be,” Trey Thurman, the attorney for the Pender officials, said after Monday’s decision.
The state Supreme Court agreed with county leaders in August 2007, saying the district was illegal because the constitution’s “whole county provision” could only be superseded if the district be comprised of a majority-black population. It ordered the Legislature to make changes before the 2010 election cycle.
State officials asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case, and the justices heard arguments last fall. State Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office declined comment on the ruling.
Anita Earls, who filed a friend-of-the-court on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, three Pender County residents and the American Civil Liberties Union, was disappointed with the ruling.
“It’s definitely a setback for the Voting Rights Act,” Earls said.
She agreed with Justice David Souter, who wrote in the dissenting opinion that the decision will require elected officials to shift black voters to majority-black districts, reducing the number of districts where they have a chance to influence the outcome of elections.
About 25 states have some restrictions or guidelines in their laws relatively similar to North Carolina involving how districts can be drawn. The decision could affect how districts with sizable minority groups are fashioned, said Tim Storey, a redistricting expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Meanwhile, another pending federal lawsuit could force boundaries to be changed further. It’s been filed by GOP voters alleging current North Carolina maps are unlawful because legislative leaders should have used updated census data.
“They’re going to have to use the best available census data, and that will require redistricting around the entire state,” said Kieran Shanahan, a lawyer for the voters.