NC Voting Districts Fall Under U.S. Supreme Court Microscope

Nelda Holder Photo: Tim Barnwell

Nelda Holder Photo: Tim Barnwell

Legislative News by Nelda Holder –

Once again, the NC General Assembly’s redistricting actions have wound up on the wrong side of the law.

Early in 2016, a three-judge federal district court panel declared 28 of the state’s legislative districts to have been improperly drawn in 2011 due to unconstitutional racial gerrymandering. On June 4, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an unsigned opinion in North Carolina v. Covington affirming the lower court’s ruling.

The Supreme Court also directed the district court to re-analyze whether district lines must be redrawn immediately, so as to hold a remedial election in 2017, or whether the new district lines can wait until the regularly scheduled 2018 election. But the court was clear that new districts must be in effect for the 28 affected areas in 2018 at the latest.

Rev. Dr. William Barber II, president of the NC NAACP (who is stepping down at the end of this month), issued a statement regarding the “four straight voting rights victories” his organization has been involved in regarding improper “racial motives and discriminatory impacts” employed by the Legislature’s leadership.

“We have had an unconstitutionally constituted legislature passing unconstitutional laws,” said Barber. “It’s time for this to stop.”

On June 7, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper called for a 14-day special session of the Legislature—concurrent with the ongoing regular session that will end sometime this summer—to immediately address the need for new district maps. But the Republican leadership in the Statehouse refused to hold the session, labeling Cooper’s move unconstitutional.

A new redistricting map is, for now, in the hands of the federal district judges who are reviewing findings at their level to determine the course of remedy for the gerrymander findings.

Meanwhile, other cases are pending that have to do with the original 2011 redistricting map, including a potentially groundbreaking Harris v. Cooper that raises the argument of partisan redistricting in the legislature’s remedial map after the original finding that the 2011 redistricting was racially gerrymandered.

It is a tense time in Raleigh. Stay tuned.

Can we just talk about redistricting?

If the flow of news regarding our state’s redistricting anomalies tends to make your head spin, there will be a panel discussion regarding voter representation and electoral redistricting on June 14 at the Haywood College Auditorium in Clyde. The Fair Vote Town Hall discussion at 7 p.m. will feature a non-partisan panel that includes:

  • Chris Cooper, Chair WCU Political Science Department
  • Tom Ross, Former UNC President and Superior Court Judge
  • Jane Pinsky, NC Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform
  • Robert Orr, Former NC Supreme Court Justice
  • Rep. Chuck McGrady, District 117
  • Joe Sam Queen, former State Representative, District 119
  • Brian Irving, Chair, Libertarian Party

This event is open to the public and is being cosponsored by the Asheville/Buncombe NAACP, the League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County, Democracy NC, and the NC Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform.

Money on and around the table

At the time of this writing, the state’s biennial budget, which is supposed to be operational by July 1, is not finalized. But it has at least now reached the compromise stage. Three versions exist at this point: the House and Senate have passed separate budgets each totaling $22.9 billion, although the two branches have assigned tax cuts and allocated funding differently. Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposed budget, at $23.4 billion, is basically a recommendation that served to set forth his own priorities prior to the legislative versions. Heavy on education funding, Cooper’s proposal featured a 10% raise for teachers and new money for early childhood education. It also reinstituted funding for the popular, but eliminated, NC Teaching Fellows program.

Cooper is lobbying for the House and Senate to appropriate some of his priorities in their final budget, but given the Republican majority in both houses, the governor’s proposal carries no legislative power. Differences between the House and Senate budgets include the Senate’s plan to once again reduce personal income tax (from 5.499% to 5.35%) while increasing the standard deduction. It would also further reduce the corporate income-tax rate from 5.499% to 5.35% (while increasing standard deductions). The Senate’s plan would reduce state revenue by $324 million in 2018 and $710 million in 2019.

In a comparison analysis by Raleigh’s News & Observer, the House and Senate budgets were credited with a marked lack of “vision” for the state, particularly in education funding (Cooper recommends a $755 million increase; House and Senate budgets offer only half that much) and funding for additional teaching assistants ($20 million in Cooper’s budget; nothing additional for House and Senate). Cooper also wants to restore the child-care tax credit; neither the House nor Senate included that break.

Out of their legislating hands

Meanwhile, out in the hinterlands, Asheville was the site of a program last week that featured a nongovernmental, non-legislative approach to a governmental/societal problem — one that involves taxpayer money. The organization featured was the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture.

This unusual, nongovernmental commission promotes “citizen-led transparency” in the case of this state’s role in “extraordinary rendition” following the 9/11/2001 attack and national tragedy. At the root of its inquiry is the secret transfer of captives by the U.S. government to areas across the world where torture was a part of the interrogation process, through a CIA aviation front program called Aero Contractors based in North Carolina. Citing a U.S. Senate report, NCCIT charges that “at least 18 CIA detainees were transported to torture by NC-based planes, pilots and crews” that program operating from Johnston County Airport in Smithfield.

The organization is dedicated to creating a complete public record of our state’s involvement by analyzing how state airports were allowed to facilitate torture “after elected officials were informed of the abuses,” and to recommend actions that take responsibility and move toward restitution under the Convention Against Torture. An ultimate goal is to “ensure our state is never again involved in such grave human rights abuses.”

WNC civil rights attorney Frank Goldsmith, co-chair of the commission, was one of the June 1 speakers at Asheville’s Land of the Sky United Church of Christ, along with Christina Cowger of NC Stop Torture Now. The program was sponsored by Land of the Sky UCC, Asheville Friends, WNC Chapter of the ACLU, Veterans for Peace, WNC 4 Peace, and Fellowship of Reconcilliation.

NCCIT is moving towards formal hearings in the fall of this year, with testimony from legal and human rights experts, former government officials, torture survivors and others, before issuing a report to make recommendations on ways North Carolina “can become a leader in accountability for torture.”

 


Nelda Holder is the author of The Thirteenth Juror – Ferguson: A Personal Look at the Grand Jury Transcripts. Read Holder’s blog, www.politicallypurplenc.com

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