RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina General Assembly leaders are deciding whether to return to work to redraw local districts in the state second-most populous county which were struck down by an appeals court.
A lower court judge has asked Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore to tell him by July 18 if they plan to create new lines for seats on the Wake County Board of Education and the Wake Board of County Commissioners and if so, when to expect them.
New districts would require the full General Assembly to approve maps in a special session. Otherwise, according to the judge’s order, either he or the State Board of Elections could draw new lines for the November election.
“The people in Wake County deserve and will have elections for the Wake County School Board and the Wake County Board of Commissioners on Nov. 8,” U.S. District Judge James Dever wrote.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the new maps July 1, the same day the General Assembly adjourned its annual work session for the year. Two of the three judges agreed the evidence showed it was more likely than not that “illegitimate factors predominated” how lawmakers drew districts with imbalanced populations to benefit Republicans.
At issues are maps the GOP-led legislature approved in 2013 for the school board and in 2015 for the commission that would take effect starting this year. Both maps included two seats for new regional posts, each elected by half of the county. The school board remained at nine members. The commission would grow from seven to nine members. District members for each body would be elected by the respective district voters only.
Berger spokeswoman Shelley Carver said by email Monday that “we are continuing to review this matter with our attorneys.”
Community groups and Democratic activists sued the Wake elections board and the state. Dever upheld the maps. But the appeals court said Dever applied the wrong standard to the plaintiffs’ arguments about why districts didn’t contain as close to equal populations as they could have.
“We see no reason why the November 2016 elections should proceed under the unconstitutional plans we strike down today,” the majority opinion read.
In his order released late Friday, Dever also asked the Wake Board of Elections to tell him what deadlines were approaching for the fall elections and whether having a primary for commission races was feasible. The school board races are nonpartisan and don’t have primaries.
The Wake County elections board met privately with legal counsel Monday about Dever’s order and will meet again Wednesday, elections director Gary Sims said.
The uncertainty comes as legislative leaders await the decision of a panel of judges that presided over a federal trial in April over litigation challenging nearly 30 state House and Senate districts as illegal racial gerrymanders that favored Republicans. The General Assembly approved the maps in 2011.
The arguments used by are similar to those in an earlier federal trial challenging two congressional districts also drawn by the General Assembly. A different three-judge panel struck down the 1st and 12th Districts in February, setting off a chain of events that led to lawmakers to approve a new statewide map and delayed congressional primaries until June 7. The state appealed the February ruling, however, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed a few weeks ago to hear the case in its next term.
A trial challenging Greensboro city council maps approved by the legislature last year is set for January. On the last day of the legislative session, the House defeated a measure by Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, that would have forced the Asheville City Council to move from at-large council elections to district elections.