police culture

Prisons and police culture gone rogue

This post originally appeared in the St Louis American

By Christi Griffin

There are few who did not rise to the occasion, who did not donate, plan or pray. There are few who did not view the senseless and brutal shooting of Michael Brown as a reflection of the lack of value placed on the lives of black males. There are few who did not vow to carry on, to demand justice for Michael Brown and all who died before him.

But there are also few who realize the connection between brazen police shootings of young, black males and entire system of so-called criminal justice. They don’t see a carefully designed plan to demoralize African Americans and bolster incarcerations. They don’t see that the failure to vote out a prosecutor whose disregard for the African-American community has empowered law enforcement to shoot to kill without fear of prosecution.

For every white officer who goes unindicted for gunning down black boys, a message is sent to others. To the police, no matter how disproportionate the response or incompetent the confrontation, there’s little to fear as to consequence. To black boys, it’s a message of diminished value. To the world, it’s one that they are above the law.

The U.S. system of mass incarceration is big business. It generates over $72 billion a year in profits for corporations and those who buy their stock. Mass incarceration breeds on poverty, unemployment, disrespect and hate. It breeds on generations of black males once again learning their place; castrated by Tasers, billy sticks and guns.

It breeds on their submission to the constant taunting of racist and overbearing police – routine traffic stops turned into searches, routine searches turned into arrests. It’s a circuitous practice that criminalizes black males for behavior routinely ignored when engaged in by whites. It’s a practice that has prison cells disproportionately filled with minorities.

With a staggering increase in the rates of incarceration, the correlation between prisons and a police culture gone rogue should be clear. Those who profit from prisons, whether private or not, have bought their way into the pockets of politicians, courts and police. They have insured that their investments bring a return and that prison beds stay filled.

All prisons generate profits, but since the inception of private prisons 30 years ago their profits have soared. Essentially engaged in human trafficking on the stock exchange, their populations have increased by 800 percent.

There are few who ever thought St. Louis would be the epicenter of social change. That the killing of an unarmed teen in Canfield Green would galvanize a region and generate a resolve previously unknown. Outside of St. Louis, there are few who know the protests, violence and meetings are an indication that the days of unchecked police brutality has come to an end.

There’s a price to pay for our sons and that price will be high. We’re tired. We’ve had enough. From this point forward, the words “To Serve and Protect” will include our sons as well.

Christi Griffin police culture

Christi Griffin is the founder of The Ethics Project, a non-profit organization addressing the impact of crime, injustice and incarcerations. She is the author of “Incarcerations in Black and White: The Subjugation of Black America.” See www.TheEthicsProject.org or email TheEthicsProject@gmail.com.

Daryl Atkinson Ban the Box

Daryl Atkinson Interviewed on To the Point about Ban the Box

After 20 years of being “tough on crime,” local cops have arrested almost one third of all Americans. Their records are easily available to banks, college officials and prospective employers, even when their crimes were minor, or they were never charged. Target, Wal-Mart and Bed, Bath & Beyond are among the companies that no longer ask job applicants if they’ve ever been arrested. We hear why the “ban the box” movement is spreading across the country. Now, 60 cities and 12 states have laws that “ban the box” on application forms that asks, “Have You Ever Been Arrested?” We’ll hear what that means for the individuals involved, employers fearing lawsuits for making mistakes – and for public safety.

The Daryl Atkinson interview begins at 15:26.

This piece originally ran on KCRW’s To The Point on August 21, 2014.

Poll-tax-protesters-1990-006

A look at NC’s modern-day poll taxes

The 24th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified in 1964, prohibiting the government from issuing taxes on voting participation in federal elections. The Amendment laid the foundation for expanded voter protection from poll taxes at all levels of government. The poll tax had long-been a principal impediment to African American participation in elections and thus was instrumental to perpetuating American Apartheid since Reconstruction. The Amendment radically changed the nation’s voting landscape by making it possible for citizens of color to enjoy the same privileges of full citizenship as their white neighbors.

In view of the Amendment’s gravity and historic reach, we wish we could talk about how far we’ve come since then. Given present-day hostilities to equal-protection in elections, however, we’re forced instead to give a solemn review of what recently resurrected financial barriers to access (read: modern-day poll taxes) challenge North Carolina’s voters today.

In 2012, 318,644 registered North Carolina voters lacked DMV-issued photo IDs with names that matched those found on their voter registration cards, according to data collected and posted by the State Board of Elections*. A review of this data showed that North Carolina’s so-called “monster voting law” (rolled out in part this year and which will require a voter to present a valid photo-ID beginning in 2016) will disproportionally burden African Americans, women, and young people.

Consider the following: Although the percentage of white voters was greater than that of African Americans’ in terms of voter registration and the aforementioned “no-match” list, African American voters were nearly twice as likely to lack a valid form of voter-ID that will be required to vote in North Carolina in 2016.**

Voter-ID Impact

Voter-ID disproportionately burdens African American voters

Andrew Cohen, writing for The Atlantic last year, identified some of the challenges involved in acquiring a valid form of state-issued photo-ID:

“If you cannot afford to drive, and thus don’t need a driver’s license, the idea of getting a photo identification is much more daunting. Since you don’t drive, it’s difficult to get to and from a government office to get your new photo identification. Maybe most of your friends and family don’t drive, either. Or maybe you are too old or too ill to get behind the wheel. Or maybe you cannot get time off from your hourly job. Or maybe the cost of getting there, in terms of transportation fees and lost work hours, is prohibitive.”

These real costs in time and treasure are further compounded if voters don’t already have the necessary documents to obtain a DMV-issued photo-ID. Add to that running tally of expenses to vote the missed hours from work, the transit costs, and the extra energy expended to procure every document, whether it be a copy of a birth certificate, social security card, tax form, school document, marriage certificate, or military record. Cohen rightly notes that each of these scenarios exists as a barrier to voting access and each is built onto a pre-existing landscape of American inequality.

Modern-day poll taxes aren’t limited simply to the costs to acquiring a valid voter-ID, either. They’re manifest also as hours lost waiting in line to cast a ballot.

With North Carolina’s newly-reduced early voting period this November, voters can expect to miss more hours from work waiting in lines to vote than in those elections of recent past.

Voters won’t get a receipt for today’s poll taxes because they’re cunningly disguised as costs that already and disproportionately affect minorities and the working poor. This ruse may make it easier for voter-ID proponents to shill their agenda but it doesn’t change the fact that North Carolina’s pernicious voting law creates modern-day poll taxes that recall historic failures in American democracy. The fact that the law’s provisions are designed to discourage political participation from segments of the state’s voting population speaks volumes about the  “integrity” of North Carolina’s voter-ID proponents.

 

Sarah Moncelle is a Researcher/New Media Specialist at SCSJ

*This data set was originally requested by the North Carolina General Assembly while it considered SB589, which later became the “NC Voter Integrity Act.” Source: ftp://alt.ncsbe.gov/Requests/Unmatched%20Voters_DMVID.xlsx

**Note: The voter registration records noted here are contemporaneous with those data found in the North Carolina State Board of Elections’ April 2013 DMV report.

women's equality day

Women’s Equality Day Comes to North Carolina, Amid the Moral Week of Action

Reposted from RH Reality Check

Emma Akpan

While I was in church on Sunday, I thought about the hard choices women face. My preacher spoke from a passage in Exodus about the saving of Moses. As the story goes, the pharaoh was planning to kill all the Hebrew boys in fear that they would eventually take over and rule over the Egyptians. To save his life, Moses’ mother and sister put him in a waterproof basket and sent him down the river in hopes that an Egyptian woman would take pity on him and adopt him. She did.

When I heard this passage, I immediately thought of mothers across North Carolina who are fearful that they will not have the ability to raise their children safely, with adequate education and health care.

On Tuesday, August 26, we will have the opportunity to highlight the hard choices women have to make daily during Women’s Equality Day, which honors the enfranchisement of women in 1920 and is now recognized around the country to address the diverse and important concerns of women. In North Carolina, the day coincides with the North Carolina Moral Week of Action, which is being held August 22 to 28 to expose the harmful legislation being imposed by North Carolina house leaders on all state residents. North Carolina organizers thought it was important to incorporate Women’s Equality Day in the Moral Week of Action since many of the policies at issue, including the state’s recent voter identification law, adversely affect women. 

My faith encourages me to ensure the health of my community. Like the women in the story of Moses, women in my community fight hard to make their voices heard and protect their children. Many women look to their faith communities to help support their families, and these faith communities across North Carolina work hard to support struggling families. They help with bills, child care, and spiritual and emotional support.

But sometimes, this isn’t enough. Funding and resources at churches and other communities of faith are limited. Most churches don’t even have the budget to provide after-school care, tutoring, or other assistance for women and their babies.

We need to live in a society that does not have barriers to health, economic security, and safety so women won’t have to fear for the health of their bodies and the bodies of their children. Women should not have to be afraid that they cannot feed themselves and their families.

That’s why women of faith have been taking the lead in the Moral Mondays movement. We are tired of families living in financial fear and living without adequate health care. We believe it is the duty of the state to make sure our communities have access to good education, health care, and public safety.

Tara Romano of North Carolina Women United also recognizes the importance of women’s voices in the Moral Mondays movement. She was on the initial calls planning the Moral Week of Action, along with other women organizers who in early July had already begun to plan a Women’s Equality Day. That’s when leaders of the NAACP asked Romano to take the lead in coordinating the Raleigh event for Women’s Equality Day.

“Almost all the organizers were women, and most of the speakers were women,” Romano said. “This is a good opportunity in the NAACP to see that we are a big part of this movement.”

Since a diverse group of women were able to set the agenda, we have an opportunity to talk about reproductive justice in a more inclusive way. I’ve written how this was not always the case in North Carolina.

For me, reproductive justice encompasses much more than making sure women have access to contraceptives and safe abortion, but also making sure women have the financial security to raise children in a safe and healthy environment.

In the past year in North Carolina, the North Carolina General Assembly refused to expand Medicaid, a policy that would help many women be healthy enough to care for their children. Yes, pregnant women automatically get prenatal care under Medicaid, but a woman needs health care well before she decides to get pregnant. A woman’s health before she is pregnant can determine the health of her pregnancy and child, and good health reduces infant mortality. So yes, all women, mothers or not, need health care.

The assembly also cut subsidies for after-school care for their children. After-school programs are expensive, costing families up to $500 a month. With the subsidies, some families were paying as little as $9 a week for after-school care, care that included homework help and enriching academic activities that help their children succeed. Now families will have to scramble after school to find safe, affordable, and adequate care for their children.

We also live in a state that just passed a law allowing concealed guns in public spaces. This law is dangerous for women: Five women in the United States die each day from gun violence, often at the hands of their partners. What’s more, given the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and the killing of Mike Brown, mothers are worried that their child may in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the loosening of gun restrictions nationwide makes our public spaces even more dangerous. All mothers should be able to raise their children in a community that is safe from gun violence.

The list goes on. For instance, our state legislators rid us of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which had helped many women in low-wage jobs stretch their paychecks a little more to pay bills. Shelia Arias, a mother of two children from Durham, will speak on the importance of the EITC for working families at Tuesday’s event. “It’s a way to help hard working people make ends meet and handle unexpected life emergencies,” Arias said, speaking from personal experience.

We also live in a state that has restricted access to voting under its new voter identification law, which disproportionately affects women, especially women of color and low-income women without the necessary identification. In some cases, these women will have to use their limited funds to purchase a new ID. In addition, the law has closed many voting sites and cut early voting shortEarly voting sites gave women who work inflexible hours the flexibility to vote. Now, women may be discouraged from showing up to the polls at all.

Women’s Equality Day gives us another opportunity to let North Carolina legislators and voters know why women should show up to the polls in record numbers on Election Day. We’re sponsoring voter registration drives and “get out the vote” efforts across the state to make sure that women, representing over half of the electorate, have what they need to make their voices heard.

In general, the day is a reminder that women in North Carolina need access to services that will help their families. We cannot continue to live in communities where women are constantly worried about how they will meet their most basic needs, like feeding their children.

CatherineEngelbrecht

The truth about voter fraud truthers

This post is a response to Ron Christie’s recent article, “Hey Eric Holder: Voter ID Isn’t Stuck in 1965.”

The truth about voter fraud truthers

In what can only be described as a bewildering exercise in editorial end-zone dancing, Ron Christie, writing for the Daily Beast, argued recently that Federal District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder’s August 8th ruling represents a clear victory for voter-ID proponents. Given the fact that Schroeder’s opinion made no mention of voter-ID provisions, however, Christie’s position leaves the reader “wondering at the competence and integrity” of the author and his views.

The ruling is certainly a setback for civil rights advocates in what has become a protracted and contentious battle over North Carolina’s aptly-nicknamed “monster voting law.” Enacted on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision, the 2013 law was rushed through the General Assembly absent meaningful debate or public discussion. The law, by many accounts the nation’s strictest and most far-reaching voting legislation, includes provisions that drastically cut back early voting periods, eliminate same-day registration, end voter preregistration, and disqualify ballots that are cast out-of-precinct. These provisions have gone into effect in 2014 and a voter-ID requirement is scheduled to follow suit in 2016. Schroeder’s decision denied the Department of Justice’s and civil rights groups’ petition to stay the 2014 roll-out until the law goes to trial next summer.

Christie attempted to position himself as a champion of truth early on in his essay, throwing punches at the Justice Department, the N.C. NAACP and other plaintiffs, and the media, in equal turn. His self-righteousness reached a zenith mid-way through his commentary where he pronounced, “Facts have a terrible way of getting in the way of a political narrative.” I couldn’t agree more, but one would be hard-pressed to find much fact in Mr. Christie’s treatise. A casual observer might be convinced that Christie’s claims evidence his general lack of understanding about the actual terms of the case. On the contrary, they show his shameless disregard for factual accounting.

His position is characteristic of those found in the larger voting suppression landscape. Undeterred by a lack of evidence to support their claims of widespread election swindles (or perhaps propelled by it), Christie and his fellow election fraud-truthers routinely make a case for their hysterical “jeopardized elections” narrative by contorting voting statistics in medal-worthy displays of mental gymnastics.

They’re not ignorant of the processes involved in the administration of elections. By taking up the mantle of “election integrity” they are consciously manipulating public discussion to advance an agenda that exists to buttress a status-quo based largely in traditions of classist exclusivity and structural racism.

It’s no coincidence that North Carolina’s monster voter law was ratified just one month after the Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision effectively hobbled the Voting Rights Act. Nor that N.C. legislators targeted for dissolution the very mechanisms that fostered and better facilitated African American participation. Nor that the N.C. voting law in contention adds restrictions that disproportionately affect African Americanswomen, and young people. Individually and in sum, these measures are designed to reduce the political agency of particular groups of North Carolinians. Couching discrimination in the language of “election integrity” doesn’t make it any less an affront to American democracy today than overt calls for voter suppression did in times long and recent past.

History didn’t end in 1965 but, sadly, neither did racism nor political opportunism. The fact that a lawsuit is even necessary in this day and age to prevent the State of North Carolina from systematically disenfranchising segments of its voting population testifies to that shameful and disappointing truth.

Sarah Moncelle is a Researcher & New Media Specialist at SCSJ

Redistricting

Amicus brief filed in Alabama redistricting case

This fall the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a redistricting case from Alabama that is likely to have implications for the constitutionality of North Carolina’s legislative and congressional redistricting maps.  In both Alabama and North Carolina, legislators stated that they believed they were required by the Voting Rights Act to draw majority-black districts with high concentrations of black voters everywhere possible in the state.   In a split decision, a three-judge federal court in Alabama upheld the districts, but the U.S. Supreme Court has taken the appeal to review whether Alabama’s legislative redistricting plans unconstitutionally classify black voters by race by intentionally packing them in districts designed to maintain supermajority percentages and whether this effort amounted to an unconstitutional racial quota and racial gerrymandering that is subject to strict scrutiny.  The Appellants argue the plans were not justified by the Voting Rights Act.

In an amicus brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the Appellants, attorneys representing the Plaintiffs in the North Carolina redistricting case, including the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, argue that the North Carolina general assembly also used unconstitutional racial quotas when drawing legislative and congressional districts in this state.  NC Policywatch has also blogged about the brief.

written consent

Written consent as a tool of racial equity

Written consent as a tool of racial equity

This piece first appeared on The Durham News website on August 22, 2014. It has been modified to include a video mentioned in the text of the article.

City Manager Tom Bonfield’s report to the City Council this week, in which he announced his plans regarding the embattled Durham Police Department, may lead to a department that is more accountable to the public. However, left unchanged, it is unlikely to make significant progress in reducing the large racial disparities evident in a decade’s worth of data on Durham policing.

Bonfield’s much-anticipated report was a direct response to a seven-month investigation by the Human Relations Commission, which found evidence of “racial bias and racial profiling” in the practices of the department.

The manager notably parted ways with the commission on one the most significant recommendations to emerge from its lengthy deliberations: requiring the use of written consent-to-search forms for vehicle searches in which officers lack probable cause to think a crime has been committed or reason to believe a motorist may be armed.

Such a policy has proven effective in numerous jurisdictions in reducing racial disparities related to run-of-the-mill traffic stops. The form clarifies for the motorist that they have agency over what happens to them and gives officers an opportunity to reflect on whether they have a genuinely race neutral reason for requesting permission to search. It also provides an important safeguard for motorists who deny officers consent to search, only to be searched anyway and have the officer later claim to have obtained verbal permission.

In Durham, black drivers are more than 100 percent more likely to be searched pursuant to a request for consent, although such searches are statistically less likely to uncover contraband than similar searches of whites. Even when a person has nothing illegal to hide, as is typically the case, the stakes are often high for black drivers.

As explored in the recently released Southern Coalition for Social Justice documentary, “Stories of Racial Profiling in Durham,” vehicle searches can be highly invasive, are often humiliating for the individual involved, sometimes result in damaged property, and frequently take half an hour or longer to conduct. Last year, in a city whose black population is approximately 40 percent, over 83 percent of people subjected to a vehicle search were black.

The commission proposed the written consent policy – which was put in place in Fayetteville in 2012 following a recommendation from the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Executives – because of large racial disparities that exist with respect to whom Durham officers search by way of consent. As our documentary reveals, behavior deemed innocuous in white neighborhoods is regularly regarded as suspicious in black ones, often giving rise to unreasonable searches.

While the manager’s proposal to increase the use of cameras will help to promote accountability and may make some dent in the racial search gap, the relevant literature suggests it will not have the same effect on curtailing coercive search behavior as will a written form crystalizing the right to refuse. Just earlier this week, the Fayetteville Observer interviewed a former police officer who explained that, “without a form, law enforcement officers can too easily manipulate or intimidate … drivers into giving consent after being stopped for a minor infraction.” In Durham, the data suggests these sort of coercive practices happen far too often.

Specifically, the high rate of consent searches relative to the number of searches overall is indicative of many officers going on fishing expeditions, with the resulting burden falling almost entirely on black motorists. Of the eight largest cities in the state, Durham posts the highest rate of consent searches of black motorists as a percentage of all searches. Nearly half of all searches (48.2 percent) conducted by Durham PD between 2008 and 2012 fell into this category, a percentage significantly higher than occurred in cities with comparable black populations (Fayetteville, 24.5 percent; Raleigh, 22.9 percent; Winston-Salem, 15.2 percent).

The manager’s report acknowledges the disparities but fails to provide an effective means to reduce them. While strongly encouraging police to document consent, the report ultimately leaves the decision to the discretion of the individual officer. This, all evidence suggests, is a mistake.

Ian A. Mance is an attorney at the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice (www.scsj.org).

marijuana-istock

Herald-Sun op-ed urges Durham to re-examine marijuana enforcement

This op-ed first appeared in The Herald-Sun on Thursday, August 21, 2014

“Unexplained Racial Disparity”

City Manager Tom Bonfield’s request that the Police Department explain why the vast majority of marijuana arrests in this city are of black people suggests two reactions.

One, and we truly mean this, is – yes! It is exactly right that Bonfield – indeed, anyone – should wonder why 86 percent of the marijuana arrests over the past 18 months have been of African-Americans.

The second reaction, a bit less charitably, might be to wonder why we are just now realizing and focusing on this. We suspect that many black citizens could and would readily have offered that conclusion based on real-world observed evidence.

To be fair, Durham is nothing more than a reflection of national trends in drug enforcement. There is growing national alarm over the troubling evidence that drug enforcement generally has overzealously targeted black citizens. We might also note that our war on drugs has been markedly ineffective at doing anything other than driving our prison population to levels that exceed other developed countries, but that’s an issue for another day.

Bonfield has given police until the end of the year to look into and report back on the “unexplained racial disparity” in the marijuana arrests.  That seems a generous amount of time, but we’re glad there is a deadline.

Nationwide, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union, “one consistent trend” in drug-law enforcement is “significant racial bias. Despite roughly equal usage rates, blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.”

Durham exceeds that – our ratio is more like six to one in favor of arresting blacks.  We have no particular reason to think that our city differs dramatically from the national statistics in marijuana use.

True, our population mix is different than the natural norm.  And Durham police make arrests for marijuana possession less often than their counterparts across the nation, including in other major North Carolina cities. But with whites and blacks being roughly equal here – just over 40 percent each of the population – the arrest percentage is double the population percentage of African Americans.

At every level, the consequences of our war on drugs have fallen disproportionately on African-Americans. Increasingly, the country is beginning to realize the impact of this has gone far beyond simple unfairness.  Far too many young African-American men are ending up with prison records that thwart employment opportunities, keep individuals and families in poverty and increase the likelihood of turning to crime in the absence of the prospect of a legitimate job.

The community already is engaged in an important discussion of whether there are racial disparities in law enforcement. Durham has a reputation for confronting these kinds of issues with honest, open debate. Bonfield’s report, and the subsequent police examination for which he has asked, should give us an opportunity to do that on marijuana enforcement.

FADE coalition

FADE Coalition Statement on Durham Racial Profiling Report

OFFICIAL FADE COALITION STATEMENT ON THE CITY MANAGER’S REPORT:

We have all witnessed this week in Ferguson, MO, what can happen when a police department becomes unaccountable to the community it serves. Many commentators have pointed to the city’s stop, search, and arrest statistics, while noting that the situation unfolding in Missouri reflects a deep-seated frustration in the city’s African-American community about police harassment and excessive force.

Those frustrations also exist here in Durham, where we have also seen teargas on our streets, and where the racial disparities in law enforcement are even more pronounced than they are in Ferguson. The City Manager’s recommendations, while a step in the right direction, will not change that. While we are glad to see the city finally embrace data review as a management tool to catch problem officers, the City Manager has rejected the HRC recommendation that stood the best chance of measurably reducing large racial disparities in warrantless vehicle searches—the adoption of an across-the-board mandatory written consent-to-search policy. The policy changes relating to home and premises searches are positive developments, but they will not impact most citizen-police interactions, which occur in the context of vehicle stops.

The department has asserted that requiring consent to search be documented in writing during traffic stops would undermine officers’ “situational control,” but this is a false argument. Many police departments that have committed to eliminating racial profiling have embraced this policy without a correlative negative effect on law enforcement. The current policy, which the City Manager would leave unchanged, privileges the convenience of police officers over the right of Durham citizens to be free of racially discriminatory search practices. And the Manager’s decision to make the Department write a report explaining why it only seems to arrest black people for marijuana will make for interesting reading, but it will do nothing to stop the ongoing racial discrimination in drug enforcement.

This report would not exist but for the fact that the Mayor directed the Human Relations Commission to investigate racial discrimination by the police, and yet this report says very little about the issue of race. You cannot have a race neutral solution to a race-based problem. We continue to believe that racial equity considerations—and not the practices of “peer cities”—should guide the city’s deliberations. We hope that when City Council takes this issue up later this month that they keep this in the forefront of their minds.

–FADE Coalition

———————————————————————————

The five FADE Coalition policy recommendations, proposed to City Council in September 2013 are as follows:

(1) Mandate use of written consent-to-search forms for all consent based searches.

(2) Designate marijuana enforcement the city’s lowest law enforcement priority.

(3) Mandate the periodic review of racial stop, search, and arrest data as an officer management tool.

(4) Mandate racial equity training for all Durham police officers.

(5) Strengthen the mandate and authority of the Durham Civilian Police Review Board.

These recommendations have been endorsed by the following organizations: ACLU of North Carolina; Action NC; Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People; Durham Congregations in Action; Durham Congregations, Associations & Neighborhoods (CAN); Durham N.A.A.C.P.; Durham People’s Alliance; George H. White Bar Association; NC Public Defenders’ Committee on Racial Equity; Southern Coalition for Social Justice; Southerners on New Ground (SONG).

 

N.C. State Redistricting Case

NC Supreme Court’s inaction on state redistricting plan raises questions

NC Supreme Court’s inaction on state redistricting plan raises questions

ablythe@newsobserver.com

Artilce originally appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer on August 15, 2014

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Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/2014/08/15/4074921/nc-supreme-courts-inaction-on.html?sp=/99/100/&ihp=1#storylink=cpy

— Three years have passed since Republican lawmakers redrew North Carolina’s political landscape with redistricting maps that Democrats and voting rights advocates have challenged as discriminatory to African-Americans.

Republicans contend the lines were in keeping with the federal Voting Rights Act, and a panel of three North Carolina Superior Court judges has agreed.

Whether those maps should stand or be redrawn is before the N.C. Supreme Court. The justices heard arguments in the case eight months ago. That no ruling has been issued has added to the political tension in a state sharply divided by party lines.

“Not deciding, in essence, is a decision,” said Kareem U. Crayton, an associate UNC-Chapel Hill law professor who wrote a brief for the N.C. Legislative Black Caucus for the state justices to weigh. “The problem is this isn’t going to be something that goes away.”

Adding to the uncertainty about the impact of further delay is the pending retirement of Chief Justice Sarah Parker this month and the November elections in which four of the court’s seven seats are up for grabs.

There also is speculation about what might happen if the U.S. Supreme Court rules on an Alabama redistricting case scheduled for hearing in November before the state Supreme Court issues an opinion. The cases have many similarities, but challengers of the North Carolina maps contend the examples of alleged gerrymandering from this state are stronger than those in Alabama.

It’s unclear why the N.C. Supreme Court has not issued a ruling.

At issue is whether maps from a 2011 redistricting directed by the Republican-led General Assembly will be used through 2020.

Democratic voters and others challenging the 2011 boundaries argue that 30 legislative and congressional districts were designed to weaken the overall influence of black voters in North Carolina.

Republicans have argued that they followed the law when creating districts. The U.S. Justice Department, whose leadership was appointed by Democratic President Barack Obama, found that the maps did not hurt the ability of minorities to elect their candidates of choice in the districts being challenged and “pre-cleared” them under a procedure laid out by the Voting Rights Act.

The map challengers contend that the shepherds of the redistricting packed black voters into districts where they had already been successful in electing their candidates of choice despite being in the minority.

The courts have allowed political parties to draw districts for political advantage but prohibit racial gerrymandering.

A ruling and an appeal

In July 2013, three Superior Court judges ruled unanimously in favor of the mapmakers, concluding that though race was considered in the design of districts, it was done to comply with the Voting Rights Act.

The challengers appealed that decision to the N.C. Supreme Court. They argued that the Superior Court judges misunderstood the Voting Rights Act instructions for what are called “majority-minority districts,” or districts in which enough people of color must be in the voting population to elect their candidate of choice.

If minority voters already are electing their candidates of choice, and often those candidates are Democrats, attorneys for the challengers argue that districts do not have to be redrawn. They argue that remapping cannot dilute the black vote, and they contend that is what the 2011 districts do by packing more African-American voters into too few North Carolina legislative and U.S. congressional districts.

Attorneys for the map challengers and map drawers have cited previous challenges as they look for decisions on the 2011 districts.

Every decade, new census numbers are released. Political parties in power across the country take that opportunity to draw new maps that account for race, voting history, political affiliation of registered voters and the addresses of incumbent politicians when drawing new boundaries.

In recent years, allegations of gerrymandering have not only raised questions about disenfranchisement but also prompted calls for reform.

A core technique of gerrymandering, political analysts say, is to pack voters likely to favor the party out of power into a few throwaway districts where lopsided victories are likely to occur.

Redistricting experts and professionals then try to map other boundaries where the party out of power will be “cracked” into many districts, allowing for closer wins for candidates of choice for the political group drawing the lines.

In North Carolina, this has resulted in challenges of Democratic-led map drawing, too.

A challenge of a 1990 North Carolina redistricting case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court found that if a district is “so bizarre on its face” that it is “unexplainable on grounds other than race” it must stand up to a strict standard of scrutiny.

In the 2000 redistricting cycle, state legislative maps were successfully challenged in state court, on the grounds that they did not sufficiently maintain county boundaries.

The maps redrawn in 2002 were also challenged and struck down in state court on grounds that districts should be compact and keep county boundaries intact when possible.

Quicker rulings in the past

Challengers of the current plan point to the challenges of the past decade when questioning why the N.C. Supreme Court has not ruled on the 2011 plan.

Those cases were ruled on within weeks of the oral arguments.

Clerks for the N.C. Supreme Court say there is no set time for when a ruling is issued after oral arguments. Many cases are decided three to six months after the hearing, but some death cases and others that are complex have been known to take longer than a year.

Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, counsel for challengers of the 2011 maps, worries that further delay could make it difficult to change districts for the 2014 elections, and quite possibly for the 2016 elections if such action is warranted.

She also thinks the North Carolina case, which is expected to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court however the state justices rule, would be a natural fit with the Alabama redistricting challenge.

“I think there are significant and important constitutional issues at stake,” Earls said.

Parker, the chief justice, will leave the bench this month because she will be 72, the mandatory retirement age, on Aug. 23.

Mark Martin, whose term ends this year, is seeking the chief justice seat on the November ballot, leaving his seat open for voters to choose between two candidates.

In all, voters will choose four seats, and if the redistricting case has not been decided by the Nov. 4 election, a new justice could ask for new arguments in the case.

Crayton, the UNC-CH law professor who has studied redistricting, said he expects that politics could be playing into the slower ruling.

“It’s impossible to divorce politics from the mix when you have elected judges and an election approaching,” Crayton said.

Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

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