Published 11:40 am Thursday, December 1, 2016

Unless the U.S. Supreme Court rules otherwise, Howard Hunter III will join 27 other members of the North Carolina General Assembly in seeking elected office after just a one-year term.

In a ruling handed down Tuesday by a three judge panel serving the US District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, members of the state’s General Assembly have been ordered to redraw 28 of its 170 legislative districts by mid-March of next year to replace ones the court struck down and to hold a special election under redrawn maps in November 2017.

Rep. Hunter

Rep. Hunter

Effectively, Tuesday’s ruling means those 28 legislators who were just elected on Nov. 8 to what are traditional two-year terms will serve only one year. That ruling affects Hunter, an Ahoskie businessman who represents NC House District 5 that includes all of Bertie, Hertford and Gates counties along with a portion of Pasquotank County.

“If we are in a gerrymandered district, then I agree with the court’s ruling that the district needs to be redrawn,” said Hunter on Wednesday morning. “What I do not agree with is facing the possibility of redrawing these districts and then having an election in the same year.”

Another concern for Hunter is how does this impact future elections?

“If this (court) decision stands, it throws off the election cycle,” he stressed. “We just came off an election cycle in 2016, meaning the next scheduled cycle is in 2018. Now they’re telling me and 27 of my fellow legislators that we’ll have to seek office again just one year later and I would assume once again in 2018. That goes entirely against our state constitution that says all state legislators are elected by the people for two-year terms.”

Hunter also mentioned how House District 5 has changed its boundaries over the years.

“When my dad (the now late Howard Hunter Jr.) served for nearly 20 years, it once covered Hertford, Bertie, Gates and Northampton,” he recalled. “Later, Northampton was redrawn into a district with Halifax, thus causing Perquimans to be added to District 5.

Then they took away Perquimans and in its place put in part of Pasquotank County, effectively the Elizabeth City area.

“I’m not a big fan of split counties. I still don’t understand why all of Perquimans County was removed from District 5 and part of Pasquotank County was added,” Hunter remarked.

This week’s ruling does not impact any other local district, to include House District 27, currently held by Gaston businessman Michael Wray, or Senate District 3, represented by former educator Erica Smith-Ingram, also of Gaston.

The same panel of judges ruled in August of this year that the boundaries of the 28 districts were drawn illegally and were deemed “racial gerrymanders.” However, they delayed ordering the redrawing of those districts at that time due to the close proximity of November’s General Election.

In their decision, U.S. District Court Judges James A. Wynn, Jr., Thomas D. Schroeder, and Catherine E. Eagles ordered the following:

The General Assembly of the State of North Carolina is

given the opportunity to draw new House and Senate district plans for North Carolina House Districts 5, 7, 12, 21, 24, 29, 31, 32, 33, 38, 42, 43, 48, 57, 58, 60, 99, 102, and 107; and Senate Districts 4, 5, 14, 20, 21, 28, 32, 38, and 40, through and until 5 p.m. on March 15, 2017. The defendants (General Assembly) shall file the new maps with the Court within seven days of passage.

The order also directed the General Assembly to provide the criteria it applied in drawing the districts in the new plans, including the extent to which race was a factor in drawing any district in which the black voting-age population (BVAP) is greater than 50 percent; and as to any district intentionally drawn with a BVAP greater than 50 percent, the factual basis upon which the General Assembly concluded that the federal Voting Rights Act obligated it to draw the district at greater than 50 percent BVAP.

Attorneys representing the General Assembly’s mapmakers wanted more time to redraw in time for the next scheduled election in 2018.

“This politically-motivated decision, which would effectively undo the will of millions of North Carolinians just days after they cast their ballots, is a gross overreach that blatantly disregards the constitutional guarantee for voters to duly elect their legislators to biennial terms,” Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, and Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, said in a joint statement emailed to this newspaper and other media outlets across the state. “We continue to believe the maps drawn by the General Assembly, pre-cleared by the Obama Justice Department and twice upheld by our state’s elected Supreme Court, are constitutional, and we will move quickly to appeal.”

Lewis and Rucho added that, because the court’s original ruling has already been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and could well be overturned, Tuesday’s directive could force state taxpayers to spend millions of dollars on an unnecessary special election.

As background to the current maps, Lewis and Rucho said those state legislative districts drawn by the General Assembly in 2011 received pre-clearance from President Obama’s Justice Department. Since then, while special interest groups unhappy that more Democrats weren’t elected have filed duplicative lawsuits in multiple courts to challenge the maps, the maps have been upheld in three out of four court decisions – including a majority-Democrat panel which unanimously found that “the Enacted Plans do not impair the constitutional rights of the citizens of North Carolina as those rights are defined by law.”

The two legislators cited Article II of the North Carolina State Constitution, which specifies that members of the N.C. Senate and N.C. House of Representatives shall be elected by the people to serve two-year terms.

In a differing opinion, Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which represented plaintiffs in the case, stated, “North Carolinians deserve fair representation in the state legislature, and that is impossible to achieve with racially gerrymandered districts. A special election in the affected districts in 2017 is the best way to protect the rights of all North Carolinians.”

The legal action was initially filed in May, 2015 in the US District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. The plaintiffs, individual North Carolina citizens, challenged the constitutionality of nine state Senate districts and 19 state House of Representatives districts “as racial gerrymanders in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

The plaintiffs ask the Court to establish a deadline of

January 25, 2017, for the legislature to pass legislation

establishing new districts and to order a special election in 2017 using those districts, while the defendants ask the Court to allow the legislators elected in the unconstitutional districts to continue to hold office until 2018.

In its decision reached Tuesday, the judges noted that even though special elections have costs, “those costs pale in comparison to the injury caused by allowing citizens to continue to be represented by legislators elected pursuant to a racial gerrymander.”

The judges also said they recognized that special elections,

“typically do not have the same level of voter turnout as regularly scheduled elections, but it appears that a special election here could be held at the same time as many municipal elections, which should increase turnout and reduce costs. A special election in the fall of 2017 is an appropriate remedy.”

As noted, the court’s decision impacts a total of 28 NC House and Senate districts. North Carolina has 120 House districts and 50 Senate districts. Even though only 16 percent of those districts were judged to be drawn illegally, Tuesday’s ruling may possibly impact all 170 districts as changes made to one district has the potential to affect adjoining districts.

Currently, Republican members of the NC House hold 74 of the 120 seats, while having a 35-15 advantage in the NC Senate. Both are deemed as “super majorities” – meaning the Republicans, voting in unison, have the power to override the veto of the governor on any specific piece of legislation.

If the lower court’s ruling is upheld by the US Supreme Court, primaries for the 2017 special election could be held as early as August, with the winners advancing to November’s General Election.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

email author More by Cal