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Court says politically gerrymandered maps violate state constitution, orders legislators to try again
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
RALEIGH (CFP) – North Carolina’s Supreme Court has struck down political maps drawn by Republican legislators to maximize their political advantage over the next decade, a victory for Democrats in one of the country’s most evenly divided swing states.
In a February 4 decision, the high court, which has a 4-to-3 Democratic majority, said maps drawn for U.S. House seats and state legislative districts were gerrymandered for political reasons in violation of the state constitution.
The court gave legislators just two weeks, until February 18, to redraw the maps, or a lower court will take over the process. It did not delay the scheduled May 17 primary but said that election must use the new maps.
“Achieving partisan advantage incommensurate with a political party’s level of statewide voter support is neither a compelling nor a legitimate governmental interest,” said the majority ruling, penned by Associate Justice Robin Hudson, a Democrat.
The court also ordered legislators to avoid chopping up counties into multiple districts whenever possible – a direct shot at the Republican map, which divided Mecklenberg and Guilford counties into three districts each to dilute the Democratic vote in Charlotte and Greensboro.
In a sharply worded dissent, Chief Justice Paul Newby, a Republican, accused the court’s Democratic majority of usurping the legislature’s power to decide redistricting, suggesting that amounted to “judicial despotism”
“A majority of this court … tosses judicial restraint aside, seizing the opportunity to advance its agenda,” Newby wrote.
North Carolina is one of just six states where judges are elected on a partisan basis.
Although North Carolina is closely competitive between Democrats and Republicans, the U.S. House map drawn by Republican legislators would have likely given the GOP 10 of the state’s 14 seats, compared to the current line-up of eight Republicans and five Democrats. (The state gained a new seat during reapportionment after the 2020 census.)
The legislative maps would also have cemented Republican control of both houses of the legislature over the next decade.
Democratic Governor Roy Cooper did not have the power to veto the maps, drawn by Republicans who control both houses of the legislature, forcing Democrats to go to court to try to reverse them.
The biggest beneficiary of the court’s decision may be freshman Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Manning, whose district in Greensboro and Winston-Salem was dismembered in the invalidated map. She had not announced her re-election plans, pending resolution of the legal challenge.
Another Democrat, U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield –- a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus who sat on the state Supreme Court before his election to Congress — retired after legislators made his district in rural Eastern North Carolina more competitive by reducing its population of black voters.
Democratic U.S. Rep. David Price from Chapel Hill also announced his retirement, even though his district was left largely intact.
After Republican legislators passed their map, U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn announced that he would leave his current district in far Western North Carolina and run instead in a more Republican district just to the east that included suburban Charlotte. Those plans may be upended once the map is redrawn.
Another candidate who may be affected is Clay Aiken, the “American Idol” finalist who announced he would run as a Democrat for Price’s seat. Although the new map is not likely to change that district, had it stood, Aiken may have faced a primary contest against Manning, rather than a easier run for an open seat.
Cooper hailed the court’s decision in a statement, saying “a healthy democracy requires free elections and the NC Supreme Court is right to order a redraw of unconstitutionally gerrymandered districts.”
“More work remains and any legislative redraw must reflect the full intent of this decision,” he said.
But Republican State Senator Ralph Hise, chair of the Senate’s redistricting committee, called the decision a “perverse precedent” that will be “nearly impossible to unwind.”
“Democratic judges, lawyers, and activists have worked in concert to transform the Supreme Court into a policymaking body to impose their political ideas,” Hise said.
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House Judiciary Committee can now sue to force compliance with requests for documents, testimony
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
WASHINGTON (CFP) — In the first major test of how Southern Democrats in vulnerable seats will navigate through ongoing House investigations of President Donald Trump, all of them stuck to the party line in supporting new powers that could escalate those inquiries.
All 10 Southern House Democrats who flipped seats in 2018 and are at the top of the GOP hit list in 2020 agreed to give the committee the power to sue to force compliance, although none of them yet support moving toward impeaching the president.
That list includes Reps. Joe Cunningham of South Carolina; Lucy McBath of Georgia; Kendra Horn of Oklahoma; Elaine Luria, Jennifer Wexton and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia; Colin Allred and Lizzie Fletcher of Texas; and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala of Florida.
Not a single Southern Republican supported the resolution, including 11 GOP members who are on the Democrats’ target list for 2020.
The resolution is aimed squarely at Attorney General William Barr, who has refused to comply with some document requests, and former White House counsel Don McGahn, who has refused to testify at a committee hearing under instructions fro the White House.
The resolution ratchets up the pressure on the Trump administration, as an increasing number of House Democrats are calling for an impeachment inquiry.
While none of the Southern Democrats in competitive seats have so far come out in favor of an impeachment inquiry, 14 members in safe seats have done so.
That list includes Steve Cohen of Tennessee; Val Demings of Florida; Veronica Escobar, Sheila Jackson Lee, Joaquin Castro, Lloyd Doggett, Al Green, and Filemon Vela of Texas; Cedric Richmond of Louisiana; Alma Adams and G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina; Don Beyer of Virginia; Bennie Thompson of Mississippi; and John Yarmuth of Kentucky.
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Decision could affect current challenge in Texas and future GOP efforts to pack black voters into districts
By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
WASHINGTON (CFP) — The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a lower court ruling striking down the congressional map approved by North Carolina lawmakers after the 2010 census because it relied too heavily on racial considerations in drawing the new lines.
The May 22 ruling will have little impact in North Carolina because lines were already redrawn after the state lost the case in the lower court. But in the long term, it could limit the ability of Republican majorities in Southern statehouses to pack black voters into a small number of districts, thereby maximizing the number of safe GOP seats.
It could also have an impact on pending litigation in Texas, where the U.S. House map is being challenged by Latino and Democratic groups over alleged racial gerrymandering.
After the high court’s ruling, a federal judge in San Antonio overseeing the case asked Texas’s lawyers to consider whether legislators might “voluntarily” meet in special session to consider changes to the state’s map. There was no immediate response from state leaders.
The case in North Carolina was the high court’s latest attempt to resolve the tension between the 14th Amendment, which forbids using race as the primary consideration in drawing political lines, and the Voting Rights Act, which requires legislators in most Southern states to maximize the potential of minority voters to elect candidates of their choice.
At issue were the 1st and 12th districts, which were changed substantially after the 2010 census as part of an effort to make the state’s districts equal in population, as required by earlier Supreme Court rulings.
Under the new lines, the black voting age population in the 1st District rose from 48.6 percent to 52.7 percent, largely by adding majority-black areas of Durham into the district. The black voting age population in the 12th District also rose from 43.8 percent to 50.7 percent, which was done by replacing existing white voters with black voters not previously in the district.
The state had defended the changes by arguing they were made to comply with the Voting Rights Act. But the Supreme Court’s majority opinion, authored by Justice Elena Kagan, rejected that argument, noting that both seats had already been represented by African-American Democrats without the addition of more black voters.
Kagan wrote that the Voting Rights Act “gave North Carolina no good reason to reshuffle voters because of their race.”
Kagan was joined in the opinion by her fellow liberal justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer, along with conservative Clarence Thomas, the only African-American on the court.
Three other conservatives justices — Samuel Alito, John Roberts and Anthony Kennedy — agreed with the majority that the 1st District had been impermissibly drawn but disagreed about the validity of the 12th District. The court’s newest justice, Neil Gorsuch, did not take part in the case.
After losing the case at U.S. District court, North Carolina’s legislature redrew the state’s entire map, which was used in the 2016 elections. African-American incumbents in the 1st and 12th districts — G.K. Butterfield and Alma Adams — both won, although Adams was forced to move to Charlotte and run in new territory after her home in Greensboro was drawn out of her previous district.
The new map did not change the political balance in the state’s congressional delegation, which remained at nine Republicans and three Democrats. Its only significant effect was forcing two Republican incumbents — George Holding and Renee Ellmers — to run against each other. Holding won.
Over the last 30 years, as Republicans have taken control of state legislatures across the South, majority black districts created to comply with the Voting Rights Act have sent African-American representatives to Congress, in many cases for the first time since Reconstruction.
However, the packing of black voters into these districts have reduced black voting age populations in surrounding districts, making them more Republican. One result has been that white Democrats, who were once the mainstay of Southern congressional delegations, have all but disappeared.
Only six Southern states — Florida, Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia — are currently represented by any white Democrats. And out of 40 Southern Democratic representatives in Congress, only 15 are non-Latino whites, compared with 20 African Americans and five Latinos.
Out of 109 Republicans representing the region, 105 are white, three are Latino and just one, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, is African-American.
Texas, where the congressional map is currently being challenged, presents a particular wrinkle in application of the Voting Rights Act because it contains large concentrations of both African-American and Latino voters.
While black voters tend to be strong, partisan Democrats, Latino voters are somewhat less so, which makes it difficult to advance the argument that lines are being drawn for political reasons, which is legal, rather than for racial considerations, which is not.
Governor Pat McCrory says holding a special election for vacant 12th District seat would be too costly and inefficient
♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor
RALEIGH (CFP) — Democratic leaders and the NAACP in North Carolina are crying foul after Republican Governor Pat McCrory announced that no separate election will be held to fill the 12th District seat of former U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, who resigned January 13.
Instead of separate election, voters in the majority-minority district will pick Watt’s replacement at the same time they decide on their next congressman during the normal 2014 election cycle.
As a result, the strongly Democratic district will have no representation until at least November, leaving the seat vacant for more than 300 days.
State NAACP President William Barber blasted McCrory’s decision, calling it “undemocratic political bullying.”
“Taxation without representation is a form of tyranny,” Barber said in a statement. “Surely there can be a fair formula worked out to ensure that all the people of the 12th District will have their voice heard in this historic session of Congress.”
Two Democratic members of the state’s House delegation, U.S. Reps. David Price and G.K. Butterfield, also called on McCrory to reconsider, saying the decision not to call a special election is “unprecedented in recent congressional history.”
“The assumption that North Carolina is better served by having one less advocate in the House for nearly a full year than by finding a cost-effective way to minimize the vacancy is seriously misguided,” the congressmen said in a letter to the governor.
“The fact that your decision requires so many of our state’s citizen’s to forgo their constitutionally guaranteed right of representation for twice as long as common practice is indefensible.”
The U.S. Constitution mandates that any vacancies in the House be filled by special election, unlike the Senate, where governors can make replacements until the next general election.
Article One, Section Two reads: “When vacancies happen in the Representation from any State, the Executive Authority thereof shall issue Writs of Election to fill such Vacancies.”
McCrory is actually calling a special election to fill the vacancy, but it will be held simultaneously with the primary and general election that would normally be held.
Under McCrory’s timeline, primaries for both the vacant seat and the general election will be held on May 6, with runoffs, if needed, on July 15. On November 4, voters in the district will decide both who will replace Watt immediately and who will take the seat when Congress convenes next January.
Presumably, different candidates could run in those separate elections, although that would seem unlikely.
Price and Butterfield noted that six vacancies during the current session of Congress have been filled by special election within an average of 126 days. After the late U.S. Rep. C.W. “Bill” Young of Florida died in October, it took only 145 days until the state held a primary election to pick his replacement on January 14.
But McCrory said that having a separate election to fill the seat sooner would cost the state more than $1 million.
“Because of the various filing deadlines, ballot preparation time, state and federal calendar requirements for ballot access, voter registration deadlines and to avoid voter confusion, it was determined the most efficient process would be to roll the special election into the already established primary and general election dates,” McCrory said in a statement announcing his decision.
The 12th District snakes across six counties in the central part of the state from Charlotte to High Point, including parts of Greensboro and Winston-Salem. It was created after the 1990 U.S. Census as a majority-minority district under the Voting Rights Act and is about 45 percent black and 7 percent Latino.
President Obama took nearly 79 percent of the vote in the district in 2012.
Watt, 68, who has held the seat since it was created, resigned after being appointed by Obama to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
McCrory’s decision comes on the heels of a racially charged debate last summer over a new state law requiring voters to show identification at the polls. Republicans pushed through the law after taking control of the General Assembly in 2012.
The U.S. Justice Department has since sued the state to block the voter ID law from taking effect.