Judges to meet with lawyers before redistricting ruling

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — Federal judges who struck down North Carolina legislative districts for illegal racial bias now are listening to attorneys before ruling whether new boundaries approved by Republicans over the summer fixed or retained the problem.

A three-judge panel scheduled a hearing Thursday with lawyers for legislative leaders and voters as it decides if the General Assembly's redistricting of House and Senate seats must be performed again, perhaps by an outside expert. The judges also could sign off on the boundaries for the 2018 elections.

The judges had ordered the GOP-dominated legislature to approve new maps by Sept. 1, in keeping with their decision last year that 28 House and Senate districts drawn in 2011 were unlawful racial gerrymanders. Nearly all of the districts challenged by North Carolina voters in a lawsuit had majority-black voting age populations.

The previous maps were first used in the 2012 elections, helping the GOP expand and retain veto-proof majorities in the two chambers, which in turn implemented a conservative agenda on taxes, education and social issues.

The judges — U.S. Circuit Judge Jim Wynn and District Judges Catherine Eagles and Thomas Schroeder — said Republican mapmakers had failed to justify using race as the predominant factor in drawing the 2011 boundaries. Critics of the maps say they packed black voters in certain districts so that surrounding districts would be more white and Republican.

This time, Republicans specifically left out the use of racial data for the latest redistricting approved by lawmakers. Their attorneys argued in a brief last month doing so cures any problems with the previous lines.

But the voters' attorneys still found fault with 12 House and Senate districts that they want redrawn. Four still have problems with racial bias, they wrote, while eight others violate the North Carolina Constitution's prohibition against mid-decade redistricting and a rule designed to minimize district boundaries crossing county lines.

A lawyer for the Republicans said in a brief last month that the voters' arguments are meritless and the judges should only address deficiencies related to race from the 2011 plans.

The "plaintiffs advance numerous attacks on the 2017 districts that are based purely on state law," attorney Phil Strach wrote for the legislative leaders. "This court does not have jurisdiction to consider these claims."

In a court filing earlier this week, Anita Earls and Eddie Speas — lawyers for the voters — disagreed, saying the GOP's argument "turns redistricting law on its head."

The state NAACP is not a plaintiff in the case, but in a separate brief asked the judges that a special master redraw the maps because Republicans ignored the judges' advice that there was a proper way to consider races. Instead, they avoided race all together.

"The court provided the General Assembly an opportunity to remedy its racially-gerrymandered maps, and the General Assembly squandered it," the NAACP lawyers wrote.