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Decided: July 1, 2016

The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling and remanded in part and affirmed in part.

In 2013, the General Assembly passed Session Law 2013-110 making numerous changes to the School Board’s method of selection, changing the make-up from nine single-member districts to seven single-member districts.  This caused the maximum population deviation to be over 7% whereas it was 1% before the change.  It also created two super districts with the maximum population deviation being just shy of 10%.  In August 2013, Plaintiffs challenged the constitutionality of Session Law 2013-110 stating that under the redistricting laws some districts have been over-populated and others have been under-populated thus making some votes count more than others.  The Plaintiffs also claimed that one district was the product of racial gerrymandering.  The district court dismissed Plaintiffs’ suit for failure to state a claim in March 2014.  In April 2015, the General Assembly enacted Session Law 2015-4 making the Wake County Board of County Commissioners electoral system the same as the School Board’s.  On appeal of the district court’s order dismissing its claim, the Fourth Circuit concluded it survived the motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim.  The district consolidated the two lawsuits on remand.  In December 2015, the district court held a bench trial and ruled for the Defendant and discredited all of Plaintiffs’ witnesses.  Plaintiffs appealed.

On appeal, the Plaintiffs assert the district court applied the wrong legal standard for adjudicating their one person, one vote claim.  The Fourth Circuit concluded Plaintiffs’ must show by the preponderance of the evidence that improper considerations predominate in explaining the deviations in a one person, one vote case with population deviations below 10%.  The Fourth Circuit concluded the district court erred in discounting all of Plaintiffs’ witnesses and erred in what the Plaintiffs’ needed to show.  Further, the Court stated that only one resolution of Plaintiffs’ claims was permitted: “Plaintiffs have proven that it is more probable than not that the population deviations at issue here reflect the predominance of a illegitimate reapportionment factor . . . to create a ‘significant . . . partisan advantage.’”  The Court further stated that “rather than seeking proportional representation of the two main political parties, the evidence shows that the challenged plans under-populated Republican-leaning districts and over-populated Democratic-leaning districts in order to gerrymander Republican victories.”  This deviation was shown to be pretextual.  The reasons asserted for the redistricting were “to increase alignment between citizen’s voting districts and their assigned schools,” “reduc[e] campaign costs,” and “increase[e] voter turnout.  The Court stated these reasons had nothing to do with re-drawing the districts.

The Plaintiffs also asserted a racial gerrymandering claim regarding District 4 of the Board of County Commissioners contending “race predominated in determining the boundaries, shape, and composition of that district without narrow tailoring to serve a compelling state interest.”  The Court concluded the district court did not err in its decision on this claim.  The district court considered the relevant comments on race being a consideration in the redistricting process.  The Court concluded the district court’s conclusion that the Plaintiffs fell short of proving that traditional districting criteria were subordinated to race in the drawing of District 4 was plausible.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the district court’s ruling and remanded in part and affirmed in part.

Judge Motz dissented stating the district court did not err in rejecting Plaintiffs’ equal protection challenge to the redistricting plans.  Judge Motz stated Plaintiffs failed to meet their burden that it was more probable than not that a deviation of less than 10% reflected the predominance of illegitimate reapportionment factors and illegitimate partisanship because they failed to “offer any evidence truly probative of legislative intent.”

Full Opinion

Alicia E. Morris