Back to Drawing Board in N. Carolina
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 8, 1998; Page A04
Like the endless lawsuit that pervades Charles Dickens's epic novel, "Bleak House," the strange case of the 12th Congressional District has cloaked North Carolina politics in misery for nearly a decade.
Today, the state attorney general will ask a three-judge federal panel to give the state legislature some extra time perhaps a week or 10 days to devise yet a third plan to redraw the 12th and possibly the rest of North Carolina's congressional map to escape a finding of racial gerrymandering.
This is not easy. The map must show the Justice Department that the state's black voters are getting a fair shake. But the districts must also satisfy the Supreme Court that they have not been drawn with race as the guiding principle. North Carolina's is the last of a series of such cases around the country.
"It's a very fine line," said state Sen. Roy Cooper (D), the chamber's redistricting chairman. "The court uses kind of an obscenity standard. They know it when they see it."
More complicated still, neither the Democratic state Senate nor the Republican state House will allow the enemy to extract political advantage from redistricting, so any new plan must preserve the current congressional balance of six Republican and six Democratic seats.
Last Friday, the federal judges found the legislature's most recent effort to be unconstitutional, demanded a timetable for a new redrawing and threatened to draw the map themselves if lawmakers could not manage it.
State Attorney General Mike Easley appealed the panel's decision to the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, and, should that fail, asked the court to allow this year's elections to be conducted under the rejected plan. Cooper expects a ruling within a week.
If the state loses, catastrophe looms. The May 5 congressional primary will have to be pushed back, probably deep into September, and filing will be reopened while the legislature works on a new map.
While all this gets sorted out, congressional incumbents and challengers are waiting and wondering if today's constituents will be there tomorrow: "I don't want anybody to think I don't have a district," said Rep. Melvin L. Watt (D), speaking from a piece of Durham that may no longer be his. "But it's causing everybody real problems."
Watt, a black lawyer from Charlotte, has represented the 12th ever since it was created in 1992 as a result of the 1990 census. A first plan submitted by the then-Democratic legislature was thrown out by the Justice Department, which had instructed North Carolina to create two black-majority districts to redress past racial discrimination.
The second plan created a district extending 191 miles from Durham to Charlotte, scooping up black neighborhoods as it meandered southwest along Interstate 85. Watt and Rep. Eva Clayton (D), from the revamped First District, were the first African American House members elected in the state this century.
While North Carolina 12, known as "the I-85 district" or simply "the squiggly line," was perhaps the most outlandish looking of the new districts, it was by no means the only one. Since 1992, legislatures trying to satisfy the competing behemoth bureaucracies at Justice and the Supreme Court have heard challenges to or redrawn districts in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, New York, South Carolina and Texas. North Carolina's plan is the last one left unresolved.
The original 12th District suit was filed by attorney Robinson Everett, a Duke University criminal law professor who thought the district map "was designed to set up a quota the stereotype was that people of the same race think alike and vote the same."
In June 1996 the Supreme Court agreed with Everett, and ordered the 12th redrawn. The legislature got a stay for the 1996 election, which took place on schedule using the squiggly line plan.
When the new plan was filed in March 1997, it looked like the legislature was home free. The modified 12th District was only 102 miles long, considerably fatter, and with a minority population of 47 percent, down from 57 percent. A three-judge panel approved it, 3 to 0.
But Everett immediately filed a new complaint and a new panel agreed with him, 2 to 1, on Friday.
There is little optimism today among those on the front line. "It's going to be hard to find enough legislators who have the stomach to do this again," Cooper said. "We've been battling this for the entire decade, and we have more important things to do."
Rep. Ed McMahan (R), the House's redistricting chief, has an even bigger concern. He thinks the appeals court "could very well" make a similar finding on another case this one involving all the state's 120 House and 50 Senate districts.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company