Greensboro challenges state over forced redistricting

by Jeff Sykes | @jeffreysykes

Six Greensboro residents joined the city itself in a lawsuit filed Monday that seeks to overturn a recent state law that would radically alter the method of city council elections.

In the court filing submitted to the US District Court on Monday, attorneys from Brooks, Pierce and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice claimed the redistricting move “destroys self-government by the City of Greensboro and its citizens.”

“If permitted to take effect, the Greensboro Act would destroy municipal government crafted and controlled by the citizens of Greensboro and replace it with a city council founded upon unconstitutional voting districts and expressly limited in its powers of self-government,” the suit states.

City residents Lewis A. Brandon III, Joyce Johnson, Reverend Nelson Johnson, Richard Alan Koritz, Sandra Self Koritz, and Charli Mae Sykes joined the City of Greensboro in the lawsuit filed against the Guilford County Board of Elections. The county board is empowered by state law to administer elections for the City of Greensboro.

The citizen plaintiffs, represented by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, claim that overpopulation of voters in certain new districts under the plan will devalue their individual vote when the plan takes effect with the opening of the candidate-filing period on July 27. They also claim that their “communities of interest” have been divided among multiple districts under the plan. Additionally, both the citizen plaintiffs and the city claim the new law violates the US Constitution’s 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law.

The law stemmed from a bill filed by Republican state Sen. Trudy Wade that was later shoved into a house bill regarding the Trinity City Council. Specific language in the law as it relates to Greensboro forbids the council or city residents from petitioning for a change in the structure of city council in the future, a process spelled out by existing state law. Both parties claim this language singles the City of Greensboro out and is therefore unconstitutional.

“The timing of this action therefore provides this Court the opportunity to remedy the equal protection violations created by the Greensboro Act prior to significant and potentially detrimental reliance on that scheme by Defendant and potential candidates for City Council,” the lawsuit states.

The Greensboro Act became law on July 2 after months of public wrangling over Wade’s plan. Initially proposed as a seven-district plan in Wade’s original bill, a new eight-district version appeared out of conference committee and was quickly pushed to a floor vote. The new version radically shifted historic district lines, moving “communities of interest” from their traditional districts to new, seemingly sporadic districts comprised of precincts clumped together across the city. The plan that passed the legislature splits seven precincts and puts all four African American council members in competitive races against each other.

But the suit’s examination of voter statistics in the new districts contains some of the most damning language against Wade’s plan. The overall population deviation in the new plan is 8.25 percent compared with 3.95 percent in the most recent council structure. Under federal voting rights guidelines, election districts are supposed to come as close as possible to the median population of all districts combined. Under Wade’s plan, districts 1,4, and 6 are overpopulated. Those are also the majority-minority districts under the new council structure.

“The reason for the 8.25 percent overall population deviation in this plan is to disadvantage certain incumbents because of their party affiliation, which is an arbitrary and discriminatory purpose,” the lawsuit states.

“The 8.25 percent overall population deviation was also caused by the desire to maximize the voting strength of Republican voters and minimize the voting strength of Democratic voters, which is an arbitrary and discriminatory purpose.”

Six of the eight incumbent members of the Greensboro City Council are double bunked with another member of the council. Only Marikay Abuzuaiter in the new District 8 and Tony Wilkins in District 5 were left unscathed. But recent voter data indicates that Abuzuaiter’s new district saw 59.6 percent of voters cast a straight Republican ticket in 2010’s general election.

District 5 saw 47 percent of voters cast a straight ticket ballot for the GOP. Wilkins is currently the only registered Republican on the non-partisan city council.

The lawsuit also claims that the process used to craft and pass the bill was “tainted with bad faith, arbitrariness, and discrimination.” Of note is that the eight-district plan came to life less than 48 hours after the Republicancontrolled state house voted against Wade’s original plan, leaving “no opportunity for thoughtful consideration of the makeup or propriety of the new district map.”

“It is readily apparent that the plan and process initiated by the Greensboro Act were designed to serve the predilections and preferences of a few, as opposed to the interest of the community as a whole, its commonalities and communities of interest.”

The case seeks a temporary and permanent injunction against the new redistricting plan. It also asks that for the purposes of the 2015 municipal election that the previous districts and at-large seats already in place be used.

The timing and costs of the lawsuit are also critical questions that remain unanswered. Previous law scheduled the candidate-filing period for July 7, 2015. At least two candidates had filed campaign finance paperwork in advance of that calendar. The new law sets the filing period to begin July 27.

Wilkins, who has supported Wade’s redistricting plan from the beginning, has waged a one-man war against the costs of opposing the legislation. The city hired attorneys to lobby the legislature against the bill prior to its passage.

Over the past weekend, as it became clear that the council majority intended to file a legal challenge against the redistricting measure, Wilkins began to question the cost of that as well.

“I believe the public has a right to know if there is a cap involved, and if not at least an estimated range,” Wilkins wrote in an email to Greensboro City Attorney Tom Carruthers that was copied to council and members of the media. “How can we inform the public about the amount of money they will be expected to spend?” Carruthers did not answer, but atlarge council member Mike Barber, himself an attorney and often prone to toying with Wilkins over the Republican’s conservative ideology, weighed in.

“A cap suggests we would in theory be in mid hearing and stop if billable hours reached a certain level,” Barber wrote. “Estimate might be a better word. However, we don’t provide estimates in other matters for many reasons- here are two. If you estimate on the high side publicly, a firm may see a higher expected cost and bill to that. Secondly, opposing counsel will be made aware of your capacity to accept cost and factor that in to their strategy. Just say you’re against it. Any number you provide will not be accurate.” !