RALEIGH, North Carolina — As North Carolina's highest court considers for a second time whether the state's legislative and congressional boundaries were lawfully drawn on the basis of race, the justices also must consider seemingly competing rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court.
The state Supreme Court heard arguments Monday from attorneys representing the state and those for Democratic voters and civil rights and election advocacy groups who are challenging more than two dozen districts drawn by Republicans.
The state's justices found the maps lawful last December, but the U.S. Supreme Court told them to take another look in light of its March ruling in an Alabama redistricting case. A majority of U.S. justices found Alabama lawmakers had relied too much on "mechanical" numerical percentages while drawing legislative districts in which blacks comprised a majority of the population.
That decision contrasts with a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling — involving North Carolina state House districts — that found mapmakers could defend themselves against discrimination claims under the federal Voting Rights Act by creating districts with minority voting age populations of more than 50 percent.
"How do you reconcile the two decisions and how does that impact that case?" North Carolina Chief Justice Mark Martin asked Eddie Speas, an attorney for the plaintiffs. Martin later posed a similar question to Tom Farr, a private attorney representing state in defending the maps.
The two U.S. Supreme Court rulings reflect the tension on how to draw boundaries in states with large minority populations, said Tim Storey, a redistricting expert for the National Conference of State Legislatures. A Virginia congressional district also was reviewed recently based on the Alabama case, with a panel of federal judges again striking down its boundaries because its majority-black population had been increased.
"The legislatures would like bright lines ... and courts have been very reluctant to provide those bright-line parameters to draw those plans," Storey said in an interview.
The North Carolina maps were used in the 2012 and 2014 elections, helping Republicans expand their political control of the state into veto-proof majorities at the legislature and holding 10 of the 13 seats in the state's congressional delegation.
GOP mapmakers increased the number of majority-black districts. The lines have contributed to a record number of black legislators, but they've also led to irregularly-shaped districts stretched to bring in black voters, making the adjoining districts more white and Republican.
Speas told Martin and the six other justices that Republicans went too far in changing districts where black candidates had won elections despite having a black population below 50 percent. For example, Sen. Dan Blue of Wake County won his seat by a nearly 2-to-1 margin in 2009 in a district calculated as having a black voting-age population of 42 percent earlier in that decade, yet Republicans decided to raise that figure to 51 percent in 2011.
Anita Earls, a lawyer for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said there's "no precise numerical target" that lawmakers can always meet to avoid scrutiny.
"The correct inquiry — the touchstone — is about whether African-American voters have the opportunity to elect their candidates of choice," said Earls, whose clients include the state NAACP.
The plaintiffs want the maps redrawn for the 2016 elections.
Farr said the 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling still means majority-black districts like the ones North Carolina lawmakers created can be protected from legal challenges. Otherwise, he told the court, lawmakers would be subject to "highly subjective" criteria about what constitutes the best racial makeup of every district. For example, an alternate map from a group associated with Earls suggested Blue's district have a 48 percent black voting-age population.
"Legislatures need workable standards," Farr said in urging the maps be upheld again. "Legislatures don't have to make those sorts of imponderable evaluations because the 51 percent ... gives them a safe harbor."
The justices didn't say when they would rule. Any decision likely would be appealed back to the U.S. Supreme Court. Four of the state justices currently on the court upheld the maps last year.