Raleigh, NC -- A three-judge panel on Monday upheld the boundaries for North Carolina's legislative and congressional seats drawn by Republicans, saying the lines don't damage constitutional rights of citizens.
The Superior Court judges, in a unanimous 171-page decision, rejected the arguments of Democratic voters, civil rights groups and election advocates who sued over the lines and argued they were racial gerrymanders.
"It is the ultimate holding of this trial court that the redistricting plans enacted by the General Assembly in 2011 must be upheld and that the enacted plans do not impair the constitutional rights of the citizens of North Carolina as those rights are defined by law," the ruling said.
The decision, which is likely to be appealed to the state Supreme Court, represents a huge victory for GOP legislative leaders whose chambers drew the maps.
The lines are supposed to be used through the 2020 elections and have already contributed to GOP lawmakers padding their majorities in the General Assembly and holding nine of the 13 U.S. House seats in the state.
The decision also marks a setback for Democrats reeling in North Carolina after poor showings in the 2010 and 2012 elections. Republicans now control the legislative and executive branches for the first time in 140 years. Successful 2010 elections gave Republicans the power to draw the maps based on the once-a-decade census figures.
The ruling pointed out that each judge "independently and collectively arrived at the conclusions" set out in the decision, despite their "differing ideological and political outlooks." The judges -- Paul Ridgeway of Wake County, Alma Hinton of Halifax County and Joseph Crosswhite of Iredell County -- were appointed by Chief Justice Sarah Parker to hear the case.
The lawsuits were first filed in November 2011. The judges agreed to let the 2012 elections continue under the enacted plans. They heard four days of oral arguments this year, including two days last month.
The lawsuits argued that the maps are unlawful because they needlessly created legislative districts in which black residents are a majority of the voting-age population. They said the GOP illegally packed black voters into sprawling districts, split voting precincts and failed to keep whole counties within districts.
Attorneys representing the state and legislative leaders disagreed, saying the maps were fair and in line with previous federal and state redistricting decisions. 2011 Redistricting Committee chiefs Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, and Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, said the ruling is "clear repudiation" of the arguments in the lawsuits.
"This unanimous decision should put to rest the baseless arguments that the General Assembly engaged in racial discrimination during the redistricting process," they said in a news release.
Those who challenged the maps sounded poised to appeal Monday. "There are numerous issues that will need to be resolved by higher courts," according to a news release attributed to the dozens of Democratic voters who filed one of the lawsuits.
The Rev. William Barber, president of state chapter for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which also sued, said the judges didn't disagree with the facts they presented.
"It's a disagreement of interpretation of law," Barber said.
In particular, the mapmakers said creating black-majority districts in some areas of the state were a lawful way to prevent the state from subjecting itself to legal claims under the federal Voting Rights Act.
In the ruling, the judges wrote several times that the General Assembly "had a strong basis in evidence," including other court cases, hearing testimony, previous election results and map and census data, to draw the maps the way they did.
The General Assembly "was justified in crafting redistricting plans reasonably necessary to avoid such liability," the judges wrote in affirming motions to dismiss the lawsuits.
The plaintiffs challenged 30 districts -- nine in the state Senate, 18 in the state House and three for Congress. They complained that Republicans created many majority-minority districts in regions where black voters had elected their favored candidates in coalitions with whites for decades to diminish their voting power.
Those who sued also contended that race was the predominant factor -- and an illegal racial gerrymander if true -- in forming four districts not subject to the Voting Rights Act.
But the judge wrote that evidence showed the maps were drawn with many factors in mind, including protecting incumbents, complying with the state constitution and make maps "more competitive for Republican candidates."