To no one’s surprise, federal District Court Judge Catherine Eagles ruled in favor of the City of Greensboro in its lawsuit against the Guilford County Board of Elections over the Greensboro redistricting law passed by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2015.
This means that unless the legislature goes back and passes a new Greensboro redistricting bill that would meet the standards set by the court, which seems highly unlikely, the 2017 Greensboro City Council elections will be based on the same system it currently has, with three councilmembers elected at large, five councilmembers elected from districts and the mayor elected at large.
Greensboro has spent over $250,000 on this lawsuit.
It would have been a hard case for the city to lose because there was no opposition. The North Carolina attorney general – who at the time was Roy Cooper, now governor – declined to defend the state, even though it is the job of the attorney general to defend the state in court.
The legislature could have intervened in the case but did not.
At one point there was a group of citizens, led by former Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston and former City Councilmember and former state Rep. Earl Jones, that asked for and was granted permission to intervene on behalf of the state, but that group decided against pursuing the case.
If Greensboro had lost it would be like if Gonzaga hadn’t bothered to put a team on the court and somehow Carolina had defeated themselves.
The Guilford County Board of Elections was sued for a law passed by the North Carolina General Assembly, and despite the fact that both the legislature in Raleigh and the Guilford County Board of Commissioners have Republican majorities, the Board of Commissioners never admitted that they were being sued and evidently the legislature never asked for help.
Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne attended the trial but he didn’t participate other than to say he didn’t think the Board of Elections should be the only party sued.
It was a weird case all the way around. Leading questions, hearsay, opinions, irrelevant lines of questioning, all the things that attorneys usually object to in court were allowed.
The ruling by Eagles is similar to the closing arguments made in the case, including some statements that while true are misleading.
The opinion makes a point of the fact that the redistricting passed by the state placed Democratic councilmembers in the same district with other Democratic councilmembers, called “double bunking.” This is absolutely true. It is also nearly impossible to avoid.
The council currently has five members elected from districts and three elected at large. In effect you have three councilmembers who are currently double bunked. Since the at-large councilmembers were being eliminated, even if you didn’t draw new districts you’d have three districts with councilmembers doubled bunked in the current districts.
At-large Councilmember Yvonne Johnson lives in District 2 along with District 2 Councilmember Jamal Fox. At-large Councilmembers Mike Barber and Marikay Abuzuaiter both live in District 4 along with District 4 Councilmember Nancy Hoffmann. So if the current districts were kept and the at-large councilmembers eliminated, you’d have councilmembers triple bunked in District 4 and double bunked in District 2.
It’s a completely bogus argument to say that double bunking councilmembers somehow makes the new districts unconstitutional because it cannot reasonably be avoided.
It is also noted in the opinion that At-large Councilmember Abuzuaiter was placed in a heavily Republican district that she could not win.
In the last general election Abuzuaiter didn’t win her home precinct and only won two precincts in the citywide race. The fact that Abuzuaiter is not popular in her neighborhood can hardly be blamed on the Republican legislature. Abuzuaiter wins because she receives heavy support in east Greensboro, but she lives in northwest Greensboro. That makes it incredibly difficult to draw a district she could win, but the fact that she probably couldn’t win her district is one of the reasons the redistricting drawn by the state was declared unconstitutional.
It was also noted that the lone Republican on the City Council, District 5 Councilmember Tony Wilkins, was drawn into a Republican area. Wilkins lives in a Republican district that has consistently elected Republicans to office. It might be possible to draw a Democratic district in that part of Greensboro, but it would not be simple and would no doubt be a really ugly looking district.
It appears that because there was no one in court to challenge anything, everything said in court was accepted as absolutely factual.
The “fact” that four out of eight districts leaned Republican was not based on voter registration because that likely would not have resulted in four Republican districts. It was based on the 2010 US Senate race between Republican Sen. Richard Burr and Democratic North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall.
If someone voted for Burr it was evidently assumed that they always voted Republican, as if there was no other possible reason that a person would vote for Burr. The fact that he was the incumbent, that he played football at Wake Forest or is a Methodist, none of those was considered. Also not considered was the fact that people, regardless of party or how they vote in other elections, might agree with some vote he made in Congress.
The same goes for Marshall. The people who voted for Marshall, according to the reasoning that this decision was based on, could only have voted for her because she was a Democrat, not because she was a woman, had done a good job as secretary of state, they liked her name or she reminded them of someone they went to school with.
The expert who testified said that it was possible to draw four Republican districts if the districts were drawn completely at random, which seemed like it would have some significance, but evidently it did not. Since Republicans drew the districts, the assumption was that the Republicans drew the districts to favor Republicans, and it seems like a pretty safe assumption.
It seemed like a pretty flimsy argument to decide that the districts were unconstitutionally drawn based on how people voted in one statewide election where the voter turnout was significantly higher than in a City Council election.
The reason it is now considered unconstitutional to draw districts that favor one party is based on a federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling. If that ruling stands, we are in for political chaos in this country because the vast majority of districts are drawn for the political advantage of the party drawing the districts.
Currently in Congress, about 10 percent of the members are considered to be elected from competitive districts. So of the 435 seats, nearly 400 are either heavily Republican or heavily Democratic. Democratic legislatures draw as many Democratic districts as they can and Republican legislatures draw as many Republican districts as they can. It’s the reason in North Carolina we have 10 Republican congressmen and three Democrats.
The legislature had to redraw the districts because the courts found racial gerrymandering, not political gerrymandering. If drawing districts to favor one party is now unconstitutional, most of the legislative districts in this country will have to be redrawn.
It’s worth noting that when the Democrats controlled North Carolina and most of the legislatures in the country, drawing districts to give the Democrats a political advantage was considered legal. It’s only now that the Republicans control the legislature in North Carolina and most of the legislatures in the country that the liberal judges have decided that it is unconstitutional.
Another aspect of the decision that just doesn’t seem to make sense is that the bill that eventually passed to redistrict Greensboro House Bill 263 didn’t pass the first time through the state House. If that is germane, does that mean that any bill that takes a tortuous path through the legislature is not valid?
The legislature always seems to have a hard time passing the budget. Can someone challenge the state budget in court because it didn’t sail through both houses with significant majorities the first time it was introduced?
The idea that a bill is unconstitutional because it took some legislative muscle to pass it doesn’t appear to make any sense. But if it is not relevant why was it included in the opinion?
It does make you wonder if the repeal of House Bill 2 (HB2) is legitimate since the repeal bills failed three times before finally passing last week. Perhaps the opponents of the HB2 repeal have a legitimate federal court case.
One twist that is yet to be decided is whether Guilford County will have to pay the cost of the lawsuit. In a case such as this, if the plaintiffs win, they can request that the judge force the defendant to pay the legal costs of being sued.
Eagles said she would hear the legal arguments on that issue at a later date, but it’s possible, and some say likely, that Guilford County could have to pay the bill for being sued. If the county is ordered to pay the legal costs, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners may wish they had put up more of a fight in the case, but it’s too late for that now.