North Carolina High Court rulings set stage for fiery 2016

North Carolina High Court rulings set stage for fiery 2016
December 24
00:00 2015
The Nation
N.C. Supreme Court building

By Cash Michaels

For The Chronicle

Those in the social activist movement got a one-two punch to their cause Dec. 18 when the North Carolina Supreme Court announced two devastating decisions that effectively further rolled back gains achieved prior to the Republican-led takeover of state government five years ago.

First, the state high court decided 4-3 along party lines to ignore instructions from the U.S. Supreme Court and upheld for a second time the 2011 redistricting maps by the GOP majority legislature, which critics said unconstitutionally “stacked and packed” black voters statewide into a limited number of “majority-minority” voting districts. By doing so, critics charged, African-Americans weren’t able to exert influence in majority-white districts, and thus were limited in voting for representatives of their choice.

“That was not a surprise, though it was a disappointment,” said attorney Irving Joyner, chair of the NC NAACP’s Law and Redress Committee, and one of the litigators for the plaintiffs who filed suit against the GOP redistricting plans.

Joyner said the Republican majority of the court “… was pretty much designed to uphold the Republican legislature and promote the [GOP] principle of stacking and packing.” Joyner added that established case law against using race to primarily draw voting districts still stands, and he’s certain that the ruling will be reversed on appeal.

That appeal will most likely not come in time to affect the 2016 elections, Joyner agreed.

Defenders of the controversial redistricting maps, which effectively guarantee Republican legislative and congressional majorities until 2020, say the majority-black voting districts comply with the 1965 Voting Rights Act by ensuring that African-Americans are able to elect candidates from among their own ranks. But critics countered that by segregating black voters, Republican candidates were able to gain an advantage over white Democratic candidates where black Democrats had been removed.

The state Supreme Court, however, rejected that argument and upheld the GOP maps in December 2014. But in April of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court, which had gotten the case on appeal, sent it back to the state high court, instructing it to reconsider in light of how black voters were constituted in the redistricting plan. The state of Alabama had a similar controversy, and the U.S. justices ruled against them.

But after hearing arguments again last August, the North Carolina Supreme Court dismissed whatever concerns expressed by the nation’s high court, and upheld for a second time the 2011 Republican redistricting maps.

Rev. Dr. William Barber, president of the NCNAACP, was not pleased.

“This bad decision ignores the advice of the U.S. Supreme Court,” Rev. Barber said in a statement. “We see it as a court decision straight down partisan line which seeks to uphold the unconstitutional racially drawn districts of the ultra-partisan extreme North Carolina legislature. A 4-3 decision.  We will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Republican legislative leaders issued a reaction cheering the decision and then adding, “It’s time for these left-wing groups to stop wasting taxpayer money pursuing their frivolous and politically-motivated appeals and finally accept the will of the voters.”

For the three-member minority, Justice Cheri Beasley wrote the minority opinion.

“For all the complexity of VRA jurisprudence, the bottom line is that the manipulation of district lines based on race to a greater extent than necessary to comply with the VRA is unconstitutional,” Justice Beasley wrote.

In it’s second blow to the social justice movement, the State Supreme Court vacated the rulings by a black Cumberland County Superior Court judge three years ago who commuted the death sentences of four convicted murderers to life in prison under the now defunct Racial Justice Act because there was evidence of racial bias in their prosecution.

The high court ruled that Judge Gregory Weeks erred when he didn’t give prosecutors adequate time to counter arguments based on a statistic study on crimes by race in North Carolina.

That study showed that more blacks than whites were sentenced to the death penalty in capital cases when their victims were white. The study also showed that more black jurors were removed from juries hearing capital cases involving black defendants than whites.

The Republican-led North Carolina General Assembly repealed the Racial Justice Act in 2013 after just four years.

Irv Joyner, also a law professor at NCCU School of Law, called the State Supreme Court decision “a travesty.”

The Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham issued a statement saying, “The N.C. Supreme Court ordered new hearings in four Racial Justice Act cases because of legal technicalities, but did not overturn the key findings of these groundbreaking cases: that African-Americans have been systematically excluded from serving on capital juries, producing unfair outcomes for defendants on trial for their lives.”

“We are confident that, no matter how many hearings are held or studies completed, we will win this case. The evidence of racial bias in jury selection is simply overwhelming and undeniable,” said Jay Ferguson, attorney for the defendants. “All this decision will do is add more delays and cost the state millions to conduct new studies and hold new hearings. We will be throwing more taxpayer money into a hopelessly broken death penalty.”

“The powerful evidence that Judge Weeks found still stands,” said Ferguson. “Nothing the Supreme Court did today challenges that in any way. As a state, we cannot ignore this troubling evidence that racial bias infects the death penalty from the very beginning of the process. When we cannot even choose the jury fairly, we surely cannot ensure fair trials and outcomes for defendants facing execution.”


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