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Court Revives School Board Election Challenge

In this lawsuit challenging a state law redrawing electoral districts of the Wake County, N.C., Board of Education, the district court erred in dismissing the suit for failure to state a claim, but did not err in refusing to allow plaintiffs to add certain public officials as defendants in the suit.

Plaintiffs contend that under the new redistricting plan, some citizen’s votes will get significantly more weight than others in violation of the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of one person, one vote and the North Carolina Constitution’s promise of equal protection. We conclude plaintiffs have stated a claim upon which relief could be granted against the board of elections and that the district court therefore erred in dismissing their suit. However, we affirm the denial of the motion to amend because the state officials plaintiffs proposed as additional named defendants – the governor, senate president pro tem and General Assembly speaker – are not amenable to suit.

Plaintiffs allege that until 2013, the board of education was composed of members elected from nine single-member districts. The board’s functioning and selection was governed by North Carolina General Assembly Session Law 1975-717, which required that the board redistrict itself every 10 years following the decennial census.

The board redrew its districts in 2011, resulting in geographically compact districts with a maximum population deviation of 1.66 percent and no district deviating from the ideal district population by even 1 percent.

The plan was put into place by a board of education that was majority Republican. But under the new plan, the fall 2011 elections resulted in a board of education with a Democratic

majority. Plaintiffs allege that because the new plan resulted in a Democratic majority, the Republican-controlled North Carolina General Assembly, in turn, over the objection of a

majority of the Wake County School Board, passed a local bill making numerous changes in the method of selection. Plaintiffs allege no Democratic member of the legislature voted for it, and no African-American member of the legislature voted for it.

Legislative response

The bill, Session Law 2013-110, changed the board of education’s make-up from nine single-member districts to seven single-member districts and set less geographically compact boundaries for this new set of districts. The Session Law created two “super districts” and prohibited the board from “making any further changes in its method of election until 2021,” something it previously could do.  Wake County is thus burdened with some “substantially over-populated” districts, where votes will be diluted vis-à-vis other “substantially under-populated” districts.

Plaintiffs sued the State of North Carolina and the Wake County Board of Elections. The district court held that it had no jurisdiction over the state, that 11th Amendment immunity also insulated the individual state officials from suit, and that plaintiffs’ one-person, one-vote claims were really “partisan gerrymandering” claims, which it considered non-justiciable under both the United States and North Carolina Constitutions.

Plaintiffs state a plausible claim for which relief can be granted. Plaintiffs allege in detail a redistricting that resulted in a maximum population deviation of nearly 10 percent. Plaintiffs describe how and why that deviation was unjustified, discriminatory, and unconstitutional. They do not allege that the apportionment plan with a maximum population deviation just

barely under 10 percent “by itself” supports their equal protection claim, but rather they plead facts indicating that the apportionment “had a taint of arbitrariness or discrimination.”

Plaintiffs’ allegations in support of their claim that the Session Law violates the one person, one vote principle suffice to survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim.

Affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded.

Dissent

Motz, J.: No matter how liberally construed, and notwithstanding the majority’s vigorous attempts at resuscitation, the complaint in this case fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The district court properly dismissed it.

Plaintiffs apparently prefer another redistricting plan, a plan which creates districts with less population deviation, 34 districts that are more “compact,” less “confusing,” and split fewer “unique voting precincts.” That plan may be “more constitutionally perfect,” but the possibility of drafting a “better’ plan” does not provide the basis for finding the plan created by the duly elected state legislature unconstitutional. I respectfully dissent.

Wright v. State of North Carolina (Wynn) No. 14-1329, May 27, 2015; USDC at Raleigh, N.C. (Boyle) Anita S. Earls for appellants; Alexander McC. Peters, NCDOJ, for appellee. VLW 015-2-086, 41 pp.

VLW 015-2-086

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