Republicans who redrew boundaries for North Carolina legislative and congressional seats followed legal requirements and took partisanship into account while forming the maps, but race wasn't their overarching principle, attorneys defending the maps told judges Tuesday.
Lawyers for the state and GOP redistricting leaders got their chance to argue before a three-judge panel deciding whether to strike down the boundaries drawn in 2011 and first used in last year's elections.
Their legal counterparts for Democratic voters and civil rights and election advocacy groups spoke to the judges for several hours Monday in a Raleigh courtroom. They pointed to colorful maps with unusually-figured districts and resident data to contend race was the predominant factor in forming the districts, making them unconstitutional.
The attorneys for the mapmakers said that's not true, while acknowledging federal law and a pair of state Supreme Court decisions in the last decade directed legislators to form first districts subject to the federal Voting Rights Act, which is designed to protect voters from discrimination. They said a U.S. Supreme Court decision also demands they create majority-black districts whenever feasible.
The boundaries also created more districts in which black residents are a majority of the voting-age population than districts in previous redistricting cycles largely penned by Democrats, which relied more on "crossover" or "influence" districts that contained black populations of less than 50 percent.
"We do not think it's a racial gerrymander to draw a 50 percent district," Tom Farr, a private attorney representing Republican legislative leaders, told the judges. "It's not a racial gerrymander to draw districts with a consciousness of race. If that were true, your honors, all of these districts would be racial gerrymanders."
Farr and Alec Peters with the state Attorney General's Office also argued the plaintiffs didn't provide alternate maps that were much different from what the legislature approved and U.S. Department of Justice lawyers signed off on under the Voting Rights Act. The Democrats and their allies also haven't presented evidence showing their plans could withstand similar judicial scrutiny, the two lawyers said.
Partisan interests, which are a traditional redistricting principle, also played a role in how the maps looked, the lawyers said.
Republicans in charge of both the House and Senate for the first time in 140 years in 2011 drew districts based on U.S. Census figures partially with the aim of improving their chances to preserve their majorities through the 2020 elections. Changes in congressional maps helped Republicans obtain nine of North Carolina's 13 U.S. House seats, compared with the six they held before the 2012 elections.
"It's a fact that a Republican majority in the General Assembly is not going to support plans that they perceive as favorable to Democratic interests or harmful to Republican interests," Peters told the judges. Farr said the alternative plans pushed by the challengers wouldn't increase black representation in the legislature, as the 2011 maps helped accomplish, but only would "elect white Democrats."
Both sides were expected to keep arguing Tuesday afternoon before the Superior Court judges, who could decide whether to declare all the maps or some districts unconstitutional, or uphold the plans. Any decision is likely to be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
The lawsuits accuse GOP lawmakers of illegally packing black voters into sprawling districts, creating two classes of voters by needlessly splitting hundreds of voting districts affecting nearly 2 million voters and failing to keep whole counties within districts.
The whole-county issue appears to be a key difference between the two sides that could turn the case. A 2003 state Supreme Court decision lays out how legislators should comply with a provision prohibiting the splitting of counties between districts while complying with the Voting Rights Act. Attorneys for the Democrats say the directive means the number of split counties should be as few as possible, but Republicans say the ruling tells mapmakers to form districts by combining or grouping the fewest number of whole counties.