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Supreme Court to hear N.C. redistricting case

Two faculty members from Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have contributed to a voting rights case that has found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case, titled Bartlett v. Strickland, pits representatives of Pender County against members of North Carolina's General Assembly in a battle over boundaries for the 18th N.C. House District. Drawn in 2000, the district violates North Carolina's constitution-which states that districts should not cross county lines-to comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which aims to give minorities a representative voice in elections.

Pender County is primarily white and has shown racially polarized voting patterns in the past. Addressing fears that the minority population would be left underrepresented in a predominantly white district, the 18th District groups black voters of Pender County with minority voters of the neighboring New Hanover County to create a voting district that is 39 percent black.

But critics of the district argue that the 39-percent minority population is not enough to warrant a violation of the state's constitution. Moreover, the plaintiffs said that a 50-percent minority population provides a "bright line" that indicates when state legislatures are justified in drawing a district that crosses county lines.

Filed in 2003, the case has already made its way through the Supreme Court of North Carolina, where the district was declared unconstitutional. The North Carolina Department of Justice recently appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to overthrow the state's decision and keep the gerrymandered district as is.

"Preserving political subdivisions is considered to be a general districting principle," said Richard Engstrom, a visiting scholar in the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Gender in the Social Sciences, who provided expert testimony in the original case.

He added that in its current form the 18th District is a "coalition district" because there is not a majority of black voters, but there is enough crossover support from white Democrats to elect black-supported candidates.

"It would obviously be a step back for the Voting Rights Act if the court threw out the concept of coalition districts," Engstrom said. "My hope would be that these kinds of districts would finally be protected, they actually are advancing the progress of cross-racial politics."

In attempting to give minorities a voice, however, legislators may have marginalized a now-split Pender County vote, said David Williams, chair of the Pender County Board of Commissioners.

Williams noted that with the current district designations both of the two N.C. House members who represent Pender County do not need to rely on votes from their portion of the county to win an election.

"I understand it could have ramifications elsewhere, but I am concerned about Pender County. We want the right to send one of our own to Raleigh," he said. "If common sense prevails, they won't override the N.C. Supreme Court."

Engstrom said previous decisions and the current makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court indicate that the justices' vote on the case will be close.

"A five to four split [decision] will not be surprising," he said. "[Justice Anthony] Kennedy is usually the one that swings, and as a general matter he swings with the conservative bloc."

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and three black voters in Pender County filed an amicus curiae brief that supports the state's creation of the district and opposes the "bright-line" designation.

The brief was intended to highlight the broader significance of the issue at an early stage in the case, said Anita Earls, director of advocacy at UNC's Center for Civil Rights and the NAACP attorney in the case.

"My clients believe that redistricting is always a balancing of interests and competing demands," Earls said. "The value of drawing districts along county boundaries is not close to the value of giving minorities a significant voice in voting."

She added that if the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the N.C. Supreme Court ruling, nearly half of the U.S. Congressional districts that elect black representatives would lose their protection under the Voting Rights Act.


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