RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The federal court that struck down two majority Black congressional districts in North Carolina refused Tuesday to delay its order demanding that new boundaries be drawn in barely a week’s time.
The state’s attorneys immediately sought relief from the U.S. Supreme Court, saying voting for next month’s primary elections was already under way.
A three-judge panel ruled the 1st and 12th Districts unconstitutional last week because the Republican-led General Assembly that drew them in 2011 couldn’t justify its predominant use of race in laying out the boundaries. The judges blocked U.S. House elections under the current maps and directed lawmakers to come up with new lines by Feb. 19.
Lawyers for the state asked the panel for a stay, saying hundreds of absentee ballots had already been turned in for the March 15 primary. They said delaying congressional races until later in the year would cause confusion and cost lots of money to carry out. The primary election also includes elections for U.S. Senate, governor, the legislature and a bond referendum.
U.S. District Court William Osteen in Greensboro, writing for the panel, denied the state’s motion, siding with the voters who sued. The voters said they would suffer irreparable damages if they had to cast ballots in the same racially gerrymandered districts in which they voted in 2012 and 2014.
“The public has an interest in having congressional representatives elected in accordance with the Constitution,” Osteen wrote.
Soon after, the state Attorney General’s Office and legislative leaders said they had asked Chief Justice John Roberts, who receives appeals from North Carolina, for an emergency stay for elections to go ahead under the current boundaries while the merits of the ruling are heard under appeal.
“The three-judge court provided no guidance to the state as to criteria it should follow for new congressional districts and sought no input from the parties regarding the massive electoral chaos and confusion to which such an order would subject North Carolina’s voters,” Tom Farr, an attorney hired by General Assembly leaders, wrote in the request.
The 1st and 12th Districts have elected black legislators for more than 20 years, including current Reps. G.K. Butterfield and Alma Adams, both Democrats. Before the redistricting following the 2010 census, the black voting-age population in the districts ranged from 44 to 48 percent.
In 2011, Republican lawmakers increased the black population to 53 percent in the 1st and 51 percent in the 12th. State judges have upheld the districts. But the federal courts, hearing a 2013 lawsuit, ruled differently, saying the General Assembly did not narrowly tailor the districts to serve a compelling interest — a qualification of race-based redistricting.
State attorneys say the 12th District was adjusted predominantly to give political advantages to Republicans and the 1st District to avoid legal challenges under the federal Voting Rights Act.
A 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision last year chastised a lower court for relying too much on a “mechanically numerical” view to evaluate minority voting strength.
The 12th District is 120 miles long but just 20 miles at its widest point as it travels from Charlotte to Greensboro, picking up Winston-Salem along the way. The 12th District, which once traveled all the way from Charlotte to Durham, was debated by the U.S. Supreme Court several times during the 1990s, when it was first created. The 1st District covers all or parts of 24 most northeastern counties.