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WRIGHT v. STATE, NO. 13-2312

Decided: May 27, 2015

The Fourth Circuit held that the thirteen citizens of Wake County, North Carolina (“Plaintiffs”) stated a claim upon which relief could be granted when they sued the State of North Carolina and the Wake County Board of Elections to challenge a state law redrawing the Wake County Board of Education electoral districts. In their complaint, Plaintiffs alleged that the new redistricting plan resulted in a Board of Education with a Democratic majority. This result caused the Republican-controlled General Assembly to pass a new Session Law that “made numerous changes to the Wake County Board of Education’s methods of election.” The new law changed the Board of Education’s make-up from nine single-member districts to seven single-member districts and created “super districts” that consisted of outer, rural areas of the county. Plaintiffs alleged that the districts created by the new law were “visually and mathematically” ineffective, and therefore unjustifiable. Principally, Plaintiffs claimed the Session Law “violates the United States Constitution’s one person, one vote guarantees and the North Carolina Constitution’s equal protection clause.” Plaintiffs also sought leave to amend the complaint to add Governor Patrick McCrory, Senate President Pro Tem Phillip Berger, and General Assembly Speaker Thom Tillis in their official capacities.

First, the Fourth Circuit considered whether Tillis and Berger are proper parties to this suit, to which it answered no. The Eleventh Amendment provides protection from suit for certain state officials. The Court recognized that a special relationship must exist between the state official being sued and the challenged action for the official to be amenable to suit. The Court found that neither Tillis nor Berger had “a special duty to enforce the challenged Session Law, and thus neither is amendable to suit.” Also, the Court found, there are other ways for future claimants to “force[] a constitutionally valid election, should [future claimants] succeed in enjoining the Session Law.”

The Fourth Circuit’s finding that the district court erred when it dismissed Plaintiffs complaint for failure to state a claim was framed by the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause that guarantees that “[h]aving once granted the right to vote on equal terms, the State may not, by later arbitrary and disparate treatment, value one person’s vote over that of another.” To establish a claim, Plaintiffs were required to show a “taint of arbitrariness or discrimination” in the apportionment process. According to the Court, Plaintiffs accomplished such by complaining that “the challenged districts discriminated between urban and rural voters, overpopulating, without justification, certain districts, causing the vote of Plaintiffs living in those overpopulated districts to be weighed less than votes of citizens in districts that are unjustifiably under-populated.” Also, Plaintiffs contended that the challenged redistricting was intended “to disfavor incumbents who are registered Democrats and support progressive education policies.” The Fourth Circuit determined that the facts alleged in Plaintiff’s complaint were sufficient when “viewed through he forgiving lens mandated at the motion-to-dismiss stage.” The Court also disagreed with the district court—which claimed that political gerrymandering claims are nonjusticiable—because the claims alleged by Plaintiffs presented an equal protection claim, not merely a gerrymandering claim. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit held that Plaintiffs allegations were sufficient to state a claim that the Session Law violates the one person, one vote principle.

The dissent believed that the complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted because the Plaintiffs were not able to provide evidence that the apportionment process had a taint of arbitrariness or discrimination. The dissent expressed concern that the Plaintiffs may have preferred another redistricting plan, however, that fact does not make the current plan unconstitutional.

Full Opinion

Katie Ramseur