GREENSBORO — When voters in Greensboro consider City Council candidates this fall, they will do so with the same district makeup they used in 2015.
U.S. Middle District Judge Catherine Eagles ruled Monday that the N.C. General Assembly unconstitutionally redistricted the council in 2015 and that all future elections would be held with the same district map — unless there’s a public referendum to change it.
Lawmakers in a bill introduced by state Sen. Trudy Wade (R-Greensboro) had changed the council from five districts and three at-large seats to eight newly drawn districts and limited the mayor to a vote only in the event of a tie.
But Eagles ruled that lawmakers had redrawn those districts to dilute the Democratic vote and give Republican candidates an advantage.
“The appropriate remedy for a law that violates the one-person, one-vote principle is an injunction against elections conducted under the Act’s unconstitutional redistricting,” Eagles wrote in her order.
Eagles ruled that the Guilford County Board of Elections, which was the only defendant in the lawsuit, cannot hold any election using the General Assembly’s bill unless the boundaries of each district are drawn fairly.
Even before the bill was passed, council members and Greensboro residents had taken issue with the restructuring, believing that the law increased the weight of Republican-leaning voters and decreased the weight of Democratic-leaning voters. There were numerous public meetings to protest the law because it wouldn’t allow voters to have any input.
After the initial bill was passed, lawmakers passed a technical corrections bill that returned the makeup of the districts to voters, but only after the 2020 census.
After lawmakers passed the bill on July 2, 2015, city leaders and six residents immediately filed a lawsuit against the Guilford County Board of Elections in the U.S. Middle District Court asking a judge to stop the board from carrying out an election using the new districts. Eagles issued an injunction in July 2015 so that the 2015 election could go forward under the existing districts.
In October 2015, nine residents had joined the lawsuit as defendants, stating that their interests weren’t being represented adequately. In November, just two months before the case went to trial, those defendants asked to be removed from the lawsuit.
Neither the General Assembly nor lawmakers were named as defendants in the lawsuit. Mark Payne, attorney for the Guilford County Board of Elections, told Eagles he could not defend his clients in the lawsuit because the board carries out fair and impartial elections but has no control over district lines or the bill.
Payne’s stance left plaintiffs’ attorneys, led by Allison Riggs, senior attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice Riggs, and several of her colleagues arguing in court without a defendant in opposition.
But Eagles ruled that the General Assembly had singled out Greensboro’s residents because the bill prevented them from voting on future referendums that would allow the council or voters to change the makeup of the City Council.
“We are pleased that the court recognized the wrong that would have been done to the city of Greensboro and its residents if this redistricting scheme were allowed to go into effect,” Riggs said. “We can debate policies and practices, but there are certain rights that should never be denied to anyone in America. One of those is the right to have everyone’s vote have the same weight.”
Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan posted a message about the judgment on her Facebook feed, quoting Tom Carruthers, the city attorney.
“Judge Eagles has entered summary judgment in favor of the city of Greensboro redistricting case this morning,” Carruthers wrote. “She found the limitation of the right of voter initiative and referendum violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. and N.C. Constitutions.”
Many of Vaughan’s Facebook followers responded, saying it was great news and thanking the mayor for fighting against racial gerrymandering.
Eagles wrote in her ruling that this case compared to a lawsuit in Raleigh, including that lawmakers refused to come to court to defend that case.
Eagles said in both cases the redistricting happened without input from appropriate parties and that voters had been packed into specific districts to give Republicans an advantage.
She also pointed out that, in both the Raleigh and Greensboro cases, computer models revealed that districts were drawn outside the range of a nonpartisan redrawn district process.
Eagles wrote that the plaintiffs could prove an equal-protection violation because it was more probable than not that the General Assembly used illegitimate reapportionment factors.
Eagles wrote that a preliminary ruling she made to continue the 2017 election under the current district plan would continue until she files a permanent injunction, which would ban the new districts forever.
“When the legislature overreached into local politics, it did so with no regard for respecting the people’s right to have their voice heard,” Riggs stated in a news release. “Today, the court correctly provided a check for a gross legislative overreach.”