Appeals Panel Won't Order North Carolina Senate Redistricting Lines To Be Redrawn

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A federal appeals court declined Thursday to order North Carolina legislators to redraw some state Senate districts, rejecting arguments that clear evidence has been presented showing Republican manipulation of boundaries means Black voters there are prevented from electing their favored candidates.

In a 2-1 decision, a panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, upheld a trial court judge's decision in January that refused to issue a preliminary injunction preventing the use of two Senate districts and to order the General Assembly to redraw them.

Two Black voters who sued in November contend that the GOP-controlled legislature violated the Voting Rights Act last fall by fracturing a politically cohesive unit known as the “Black Belt” region when it redrew the two northeastern districts.

U.S. District Judge James Dever had decided in part that lawyers for the voters had not shown that voting in close to 20 counites was racially polarized at legally significant levels to justify new districts. And Dever said it was too late in the 2024 election cycle — legislative primaries were held March 5 — to order new lines, citing a legal principle discouraging voting-rule changes close to elections.

When the three circuit judges heard oral arguments last month, two sounded hesitant to reverse Dever, including Circuit Judge Allison Rushing, who wrote Thursday's majority opinion. It's possible the voters can accumulate evidence for a trial that shows the Voting Rights Act was violated and a majority-minority district should be created in the area, she said.

“But the standard for winning relief before trial ... while elections are underway is high indeed, and Plaintiffs have not satisfied it with the record they have developed thus far,” Rushing wrote. Circuit Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson joined in her opinion.

Circuit Judge Roger Gregory, writing a dissenting opinion, said Dever misconstrued the legal standard to determine a Voting Rights Act violation, leading to an insurmountable roadblock for the voters who sued to be successful. And the legislature wouldn't be required to draw a minority-majority district to address the racial bias, Gregory said.

“The North Carolina General Assembly enacted a map that cracked the state’s Black Belt right down the middle,” Gregory wrote. “Yet the district court concluded that this new map was unlikely to dilute Black voters’ power.”

Alterations to even two Senate districts could affect efforts this fall by Republicans to retain the party's current narrow veto-proof majority in the chamber. The two senators representing the region are Republicans. A ruling ultimately favoring the plaintiffs could help a Democrat win one of the seats. Further court appeals are possible.

Eddie Speas, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said he was still reviewing the ruling late Thursday. The Associated Press sent an email Thursday seeking comment from the Republican legislative leaders who were sued.

There were no March 5 primaries for the 1st and 2nd Senate Districts being challenged. The voters' lawyers have said there would be enough time for the legislature to redraw the lines and hold primary elections, if needed, in replacement districts. But attorneys for the GOP lawmakers said state redistricting rules could precipitate the redrawing of more Senate districts and more new elections.

Much of Thursday's opinions, which totaled more than 90 pages, focused on the findings from an expert that the plaintiffs used to build their case. Dever found the expert's report “unreliable, incomplete, and contradicted by other evidence,” Rushing wrote. Gregory said that Dever was wrong to discount the expert's analysis.

Rushing was nominated to the court by Donald Trump and Wilkinson by Ronald Reagan. Gregory was first appointed to the court by Bill Clinton.

One of the Black voters who sued, Rodney Pierce, is running for a state House seat in the region. Pierce narrowly won his Democratic primary this month, defeating a 10-term incumbent. Pierce faces no Republican opposition this fall.

The General Assembly redrew the state's congressional and legislative district maps in October. At least three other redistricting lawsuits challenging those lines are pending.