RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- North Carolina's journey toward new political boundaries for the Legislature and Congress for the next decade is about to detour again into court.
Civil rights, election reform and union groups are planning to file a lawsuit Friday challenging the recently approved boundaries in state court. The groups' moves come even after the U.S. Justice Department announced late Tuesday it wouldn't object, for now, to the maps based on a portion of the federal Voting Rights Act. North Carolina's redistricting maps are subject to prior approval by the Justice Department or federal courts because of past discrimination.
Critics of the plans, which were passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature in July, have argued the plans still violate other parts of the Voting Rights Act and the state constitution by packing black voters into certain districts, thus reducing their overall influence while benefiting the GOP in surrounding districts that receive larger white populations. The plans also split too many voting precincts and cross too many county lines, they contend. Republicans say they followed the law and that the Justice Department's decision proves it.
The groups that expect to file a lawsuit Friday in Wake County Superior Court include the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Democracy North Carolina; the League of Women Voters and the A. Philip Randolph Institute, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
The groups will "file a lawsuit asking our North Carolina courts to stop this cleverly disguised race-based scheme," said the Rev. William Barber, the state NAACP president. A three-judge panel would hear the case.
Democratic elected leaders, who weren't in control of the mapmaking this year for the first time in decades, also have suggested they will sue.
The stakes are high -- the proposed maps would give Republicans the inside track to preserve their new legislative majority and win up to four congressional seats currently held by Democrats. Successful litigation could lead to delays in the 2012 election calendar, beginning with candidate filing in mid-February, if maps have to be reworked.
"We are quite confident that once the facts are in full view, the courts will guarantee the people of North Carolina fair and legal maps at the end of this process," Senate Minority Whip Josh Stein, D-Wake, said in a prepared statement.
Sen. Bob Rucho, chairman of the Senate Redistricting Committee, said he would think the "pre-clearance" of the maps by President Barack Obama's Justice Department would give map critics pause before suing.
"It's an affirmation that we did the right thing," Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, told reporters. He added that critics "have to think twice before coming forward because (of) that decision by the Justice Department not to challenge our maps."
Litigation over North Carolina's maps has been common -- and often effective -- in adjusting boundaries approved by the Legislature.
North Carolina's legislative or congressional boundaries have become test cases over race and redistricting since the 1980s, often leading to far-reaching decisions at the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Justice Department denied pre-clearance on eight occasions in North Carolina for House, Senate or congressional maps during the 1980s and 1990s.
While the Justice Department under President George H.W. Bush pre-cleared all three sets of maps drawn in 2001 by the Democratic-controlled Legislature, Republicans sued successfully in state court to strike down the legislative maps. The boundaries were finally worked out in late 2003.
Suing in state court could be advantageous because "there are protections that voters have under the North Carolina constitution that go beyond those in the Voting Rights Act," said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, an election reform group. He said Republican mapmakers broke the law by splitting hundreds of voting precincts where almost 2 million of the 7.25 million adults in the state live.
In many cases, black voters in the precincts were carved out and placed in another legislative district, Hall said, leading to confusion during the election season.
"You're creating situations that are complicating the voting process for residents in those districts that's going to disproportionately impact African-American voters," Hall said.
Republicans have said splitting precincts was necessary to comply with the Voting Rights Act and to ensure that black voters were able to elect candidates of their choice. Rucho said there's nothing in the Voting Rights Act or a series of state Supreme Court rulings last decade that prevents the splitting of precincts or similar voting units.
Rucho's office later released a 1996 U.S. Department of Justice letter to the state questioning a law approved the year before that would prevent mapmakers from splitting precincts while drawing legislative districts. The federal attorney wrote that the restriction would make it "more difficult to maintain existing majority black districts and to create new ones." The law wasn't enforced.
The General Assembly appeared ready to return Monday to Raleigh to fix what's been called technical omissions in the text of the laws that describe the legislative and congressional boundaries. The Legislature already was scheduled to reconvene that day.
"We are going to do something on redistricting as quickly as we can, and (Monday) is a prime option for us," said Jordan Shaw, a spokesman for House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg. Shaw said he wasn't aware of additional legislation that would be considered next week.
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