Lawsuit targets racially gerrymandered N.C. judicial elections

Judges Donald Cureton, left, and Alicia Brooks lost their seats after the North Carolina legislature drew them into a judicial election district that's overwhelmingly white. (Images from Cureton's website and the Mecklenburg County Bar.)

The 2018 election was the first in which voters in Charlotte, North Carolina, chose their local judges in districts rather than county-wide. Two black judges, Alicia Brooks and Donald Cureton, narrowly lost their seats after the Republican-controlled legislature placed them in a district that is 82 percent white. Just over half of Mecklenburg County's population is white. 
Cureton lost to a less qualified Republican candidate who had run before and who acknowledged that her campaign benefited from the new district lines. Brooks and Cureton, both Democrats, said they plan to run again next year. Gov. Roy Cooper (D) appointed Cureton to a vacant District Court seat in February.
Cureton and Brooks are plaintiffs in a new lawsuit challenging the 2018 law that divided Mecklenburg County, which consists mostly of Charlotte, into eight subdistricts for elections to the county's District Court. Their lawyer is Robert Hunter, a former appellate judge who was appointed by then-Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican. 
The plaintiffs argue the legislature intentionally drew the districts to "minimize the voting strength" of communities of color. They claim that the new districts are "deliberately segregated along color and racial lines" in an effort to give white voters more political power. The lawsuit argues this violates the bans on racial discrimination in the state and federal constitutions, as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Of the eight new districts drawn by the legislature, three have over 70 percent white voters, while four are more than 60 percent non-white, leading to the appearance of racial gerrymandering. Former state Rep. Justin Burr (R), the sponsor of the bill, denied accusations of gerrymandering and violating the Voting Rights Act during debates over the measure.

The new maps resulted in oddly shaped districts, like District 26F of the Mecklenburg County District Court and District 10C of the Wake County District Court. (Image from the N.C. legislature.)

The plaintiffs also note that the new districts are "bizarrely shaped and can only be explained on the basis of race." The law also redrew the lines for district courts in the coastal city of Wilmington and in Wake County, which includes the capital city of Raleigh. Some districts in Wake County are as oddly shaped as the Charlotte's districts, but the lawsuit is limited to Mecklenburg County.

The lawsuit against the bill joins other VRA cases challenging judicial elections in federal courts around the South. Voting rights groups have sued to challenge elections to the high courts in Alabama, Arkansas, and Louisiana, as well as other courts in those states. 
There are currently no black justices on the supreme courts in Arkansas and Alabama, and the plaintiffs seek to remedy this disparity by asking federal courts to order elections by district rather than statewide. While African Americans constitute more than a quarter of Alabama's population, not one of the state's 19 appellate judges is black.
The Louisiana Supreme Court includes only one black justice, though the state population is nearly one-third black. The court's sole black member was appointed to settle a previous VRA lawsuit, and the plaintiffs want another district that would enable voters of color to elect their "candidate of choice." 

More white judges 

Facing South has reported on attempts by the Republican-controlled North Carolina legislature over the past six years "to reshape the state's courts and keep certain judicial candidates from winning, all in an effort to get their preferred judges on the bench." Several of these changes threatened judicial diversity. 
North Carolina's appellate courts are more diverse than those in other Southern states. Several black judges were first elected with the help of public financing for appellate court campaigns, but that program was repealed in 2013 as part of the legislature's wide-ranging voter suppression bill. The legislature also tried to change the 2016 and 2018 Supreme Court elections in ways that could have kept two of the court's three black justices from being elected. 
The North Carolina legislature also made judicial elections partisan, becoming the first state to do so in about a century. The plaintiffs in the new lawsuit said that partisan elections enhanced the ability of communities of color to elect their preferred judicial candidates.
North Carolina legislators' desire to change the courts and judicial elections coincided with their repeated losses in voting rights cases, including lawsuits over gerrymandering at all levels of government. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld rulings that North Carolina's election districts for both Congress and the state legislature were racially gerrymandered. 
The effort to redraw judicial election districts began in the spring of 2017, when Burr introduced a plan to quickly redraw districts for judges and prosecutors around the state. An early map would have placed more than half of the state's black district court judges in a district with another incumbent, according to NC Policy Watch. 
The initial proposal led to strong pushback from judges, editorial boards, Democratic lawmakers, civil rights leaders, and the public. The earliest versions split up districts in several urban counties, and a legislative aide told judges that the goal was to get more Republicans on the bench. Burr met with judges from around the state, addressed many instances of double bunking, and introduced several plans. 
Burr initially denied knowledge of the impact of his proposals on black incumbent judges, but his final statewide map was released with data on the impact on incumbent judges of color. Though the map was released with racial data, it double-bunked even more black Superior Court judges than the previous maps. 

After more than a year of debate, the legislature passed Burr's bill to redraw the districts in Charlotte, Wake County, and Wilmington. Cooper vetoed it, but the legislature overrode his veto.

'Unified judicial system' 

Although the VRA issue could end up in federal courts, the North Carolina Supreme Court is the ultimate authority on interpreting the state constitution. The lawsuit cites the state constitution's limits on the legislature's power to create courts and its requirement that laws governing the judicial branch be "uniformly applicable in every local court district." 
The state constitution also requires judges to reside in their districts, but the new law requires Charlotte judges to live in a specific subdistrict. Moreover, state law defines a "district" as something "which consists exclusively of one or more entire counties." 
North Carolina's District Court system has been in place for more than 50 years, the product of a wide-ranging restructuring of the state judiciary into a "unified" system. Over the years, the state made changes to judicial election districts to ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act.  Until recently, only a few small counties had subdistricts.
Under the new system, litigants and defendants across Mecklenburg County have their cases decided by District Court judges who were elected by only a portion of the county. The lawsuit says that conflicts with another North Carolina law, which states that every judge "shall be elected by the qualified voters of the … district in which he or she is to serve."

Some of the plaintiffs are voters who can vote for only two of the 21 judges on the District Court that presides over them. Their argument, if accepted by the courts, could mean that subdistricts in any county are unconstitutional. 
The plaintiffs have asked the state Supreme Court to appoint a three-judge panel to hear the case.