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Posted by on Apr 20, 2015

Supreme Court Revives Challenge to North Carolina Redistricting

Civil rights groups say illegally redrawn election map dilutes influence of black voters
Updated April 20, 2015 3:21 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday revived a challenge to North Carolina’s election map, which civil rights groups complain illegally concentrates black voters in a handful of districts.

The North Carolina Supreme Court in December had upheld a redistricting map set by the Republican-controlled state legislature following the 2010 census. But in March, the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated a similar lawsuit against Alabama’s map, which also had previously passed muster with a lower court.

Monday’s decision, issued without comment, ordered the North Carolina high court to reconsider its ruling in light of the March opinion. The Alabama ruling required a lower court to consider that packing more minority voters in a district than necessary to give them political strength could violate the Voting Rights Act, by reducing the number of districts where minority voters could wield influence.

Lawyers challenging the map said they have filed a motion asking the North Carolina Supreme Court to expedite its review. “Plaintiffs originally filed this case in 2011. They are entitled to a final determination that their rights have been violated and a prompt redrawing of non-discriminatory, geographically compact districts in time for the 2016 elections,” said Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a Durham, N.C., group representing the challengers

The North Carolina attorney general’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Following the 2010 census, the North Carolina Legislature redrew congressional and legislative lines to concentrate African-Americans in a handful of districts, under the theory the Voting Rights Act favored the creation of majority black districts.

The prior state map had no majority black congressional or state Senate districts; the 2011 map had two of the former and nine of the latter. In the state House, majority-black seats increased to 23 from 10.

Because blacks have voted overwhelmingly for Democrats, concentrating them in fewer districts had the effect of increasing the proportion of Republican-leaning white voters in other districts. The new map didn’t radically alter the state’s political balance in the 2014 elections, as Republicans picked up one seat in the 50-member Senate and lost three in the 120-member House. Democrats lost one seat in North Carolina’s congressional delegation, where Republicans now hold a 10-3 edge.

Nevertheless, minority voters, North Carolina NAACP branches and other groups sued to block the new map, contending it illegally diluted black voting strength. Since African-Americans already were able to elect their “candidates of choice” in majority-white districts—apparently through political coalitions with the minority of whites who favored Democrats—“packing” blacks into specific districts violates the Voting Rights Act, the lawsuit argued.

Statewide, North Carolina has grown increasingly competitive, seeing a tight race last year that unseated a Democratic senator and voting for President Barack Obama in 2008 but his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, in 2012.

Although there are some differences in the legal provisions involved in the Alabama and North Carolina cases, the challengers cited the Alabama opinion in appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The justices split 5-4 in the Alabama case, with maverick conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy joining the four liberal justices to revive the case.

The March opinion, by Justice Stephen Breyer, held the Voting Rights Act doesn’t prescribe “a particular numerical minority percentage” in each district. Instead, the court said, it requires the state “to maintain a minority’s ability to elect a preferred candidate of choice,” which potentially doesn’t require a supermajority or even majority of minority-group voters.

Write to Jess Bravin at jess.bravin@wsj