By Elizabeth DeFrance

On May 27, 2015, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case Wright v. North Carolina. The Court considered whether the District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina erred in ruling Senate President Pro Tem Philip Berger and General Assembly Speaker Thom Tillis could not be properly enjoined to a suit claiming the redrawing of Wake County Board of Education electoral districts violated the “one person, one vote” guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment and the North Carolina Constitution. The Court also considered whether the district court erred in granting the defendants’ Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss when the plaintiffs’ complaint alleged “facts sounding in arbitrariness” without explicitly stating the element.

After Elections Resulted in a Democratic Majority on the Board of Education, the Republican-led General Assembly Passed a Bill to Redraw Electoral Districts

The Wake County Board of Education redrew electoral districts after the 2010 census, as required by the General Assembly. The resulting districts were geographically compact and had a maximum population deviation of 1.66%. The first election under the new plan resulted in a Democratic majority on the Board of Education. In spite of objections from the majority of the School Board, the Republican-led General Assembly passed Session Law 2013-110 (“Session Law”), redrawing the electoral districts. The changes resulted in seven less geographically compact districts and two “super districts.” One super district is an outer ring of rural areas and the other a central urban area. The maximum population deviation between the super districts is 9.8%. The Session Law also prohibits the Board of Education from making any changes to its election procedures until 2021.

Calla Wright along with twelve other individual Wake County citizens and two citizen associations brought a claim against the State of North Carolina and the Wake County Board of Elections alleging the redistricting violates the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and the Equal Protection Clause of the North Carolina Constitution because the votes of Plaintiffs living in overpopulated districts weigh less than the votes of people living in underpopulated districts.

Defendants filed a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. Plaintiffs moved to amend to substitute Governor Pat McCrory, Senate President Pro Tem Philip Berger, and General Assembly Speaker Thom Tillis for the State of North Carolina. The district court granted Defendants’ motion to dismiss and denied Plaintiffs’ motion to amend.

State Officials May be Enjoined for the Use of State Power in Violation of the Constitution Only if they Have a Connection with Enforcement of the Act

The Court noted that although the Eleventh Amendment provides some immunity for state officials from private suits brought in federal court, an official may properly be enjoined if he has “some connection with the enforcement of an unconstitutional act.” The North Carolina Constitution does not provide the General Assembly with power to enforce laws, and both Berger and Tillis are members of the General Assembly. Thus, because neither Proposed Defendant has authority to enforce the redistricting plan, the Court held that they could not be properly enjoined and Plaintiffs’ motion to amend was properly denied. The Plaintiffs, in their reply brief to the Court, had conceded that McCrory was not a proper defendant.

To Survive Summary Judgment Where the Population Deviation is Below 10%, a Plaintiff Must Produce Evidence that the Apportionment was Arbitrary or Discriminatory

On the issue of whether summary judgment was properly granted for the defendants, the Court looked to the “one person, one vote” principle inherent in the Equal Protection Clause. When constructing districts, governments must “make an honest and good faith effort” to make the population in each as close to equal as is practicable. When a plaintiff brings a claim related to a redistricting plan with a population deviation below 10%, he has the burden to provide additional evidence showing the redistricting process had a “taint of arbitrariness or discrimination.”

Plaintiffs’ Factual Allegations “Sounding in Arbitrariness” Were Sufficient to Provide Defendants Fair Notice of Their Claims

The Court noted that Plaintiffs’ complaint alleged the redistricting discriminated between urban and rule voters because the rural districts were “unjustifiably underpopulated” and the urban districts were “overpopulated without justification.” The Plaintiffs also pointed out that the Board of Education was opposed to the Session Law, and that no African-American or Democratic members of the General Assembly voted for it. The Court reasoned that this suggested the law was “neither racially or otherwise neutral.”

The Court reasoned that although Plaintiffs did not expressly plead that the Session Law was arbitrary or discriminatory, their factual allegations sounded in arbitrariness and provided defendants fair notice of their claims.

The Court also rejected the district court’s justification for dismissal based on its view that plaintiffs had a political gerrymandering claim rather than a “one person, one vote” claim. The Court concluded that Plaintiffs clearly pled an equal protection claim.

Plaintiffs’ Federal Constitution and North Carolina Constitution Equal Protection Claims Were Improperly Dismissed

The Court held that because Plaintiffs’ complaint clearly pled facts supporting arbitrariness and discrimination, their Federal Constitution equal protection claim was improperly dismissed under 12(b)(6). For the same reasons, Plaintiffs’ North Carolina equal protection claim was also improperly dismissed. Additionally, because the Proposed Defendants did not have authority to enforce the Session Law, they could not be enjoined and Plaintiffs’ request to amend was properly denied. Accordingly, the case was affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz dissented. She reasoned that the Plaintiffs’ pleadings did not overcome the presumption of constitutionality for a redistricting plan with a maximum population deviation under 10% because the complaint did not use the words “arbitrariness” or “invidious discrimination” and failed to allege facts supporting such claims.