Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Did the 4th Circuit Wrongly Decide In This Case? (Summary, Fact Statement, and Standard of Review)

Did the 4th Circuit Wrongly Decide Raleigh Wake Citizens Association?

If you have no legal experience… perfect! This is a great “getting your feet wet” case for reading legal decisions! This post will analyze the recent ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit section by section, while referencing the dissent as well as the majority opinion. For those who are not experienced reading a legal decision:

-I have prefaced my analysis with a brief explanation of each section of the decision and why it’s important
-I have opted to use simple page numbers as citations, rather than proper legal format
-I have tried to keep the legal jargon to a minimum.
-And, where possible, you’ll see bulleted lists like this one.  

-The key issue in this case is apportionment and population deviation. High variance between the population of the smallest district and largest district (The Maximum Population Deviation) is not ideal.

-10% variance in Maximum Population Deviation is a key number, and the recently redrawn Wake County districts are under 10% MPD.

The Case: Raleigh Wake Citizens Ass’n. v. Wake Cty. Bd. of Elec.

The Case Summary:
The legal justification for opening a decision with a summary overview is two-fold: It serves as an explanation of the decision, and it outlines the structure of the reasoning that will be presented. Realistically, the judicial system is as much about pageantry/formality as it is about procedure and process. It’s best to think of the summary section as a combination of medieval herald and dramatic narrator – “Hear and be told, that which we have reasoned.”

The Majority:
-Believes the new redistricting lines violate the 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause

The Dissent:
-Cites case precedent to maintain that the redistricting is constitutional  

Part I – Statement of Facts
It is relatively standard within the industry to present legal briefs in a certain format, beginning with a Statement of Facts which, unsurprisingly, states the facts of the case. In a decision, this represents the facts upon which the court has relied.

The Timeline of the Case:
-Wake County grows more than 40%. Post-census redistricting needed.

-“The School Board, at that time dominated by registered Republicans […]” (p.4) redraws new districts with a Maximum Population Deviation of 1.75%
-Democratic majority elected to Wake County School Board under post-census districts

-North Carolina General Assembly changes post-census districts of the Wake County School Board to 7 numbered districts and 2 super-districts (described as a donut of rural area and a donut hole of urban area). The new numbered districts have a 7% Maximum Population Variance, and the super-districts are just under 10%.

-First legal challenge made (Wright v. North Carolina, Dismissed March 2014 and appealed)

April & May 2015:
-North Carolina General Assembly changes Wake County Board of County Commissioner districts to mirror Board of Education districts.

-Second legal challenge made (Raleigh Wake Citizens Ass’n)

-Appeal for first legal challenge successful, and both cases are tried together

-Joined cases are unsuccessful at bench (non-jury) trial; Appeal filed

July 2016:
-Redistricting as drawn by the North Carolina General Assembly deemed unconstitutional.

The Narrative Outside of the Timeline

-The statement of facts goes to some lengths to note that, in both cases, the General Assembly bills were opposed by “a majority” of affected board members, “nearly” or “every Democratic state legislator,” “every African-American legislator in the General Assembly,” and (in the case of County Commissioner) “polled Wake County voters”. (p.5, p.7)

-The majority opinion also makes a point of noting that the bench trial was conducted with expedited discovery, and also that certain discovery was blocked by legislative immunity. The majority opinion interprets the significance of this fact in a dangerous way, as detailed in the forthcoming analysis section.

Part II – Standard of Review
The standard of review is the standard by which the appellate court is bound. Generally, review is conducted for ‘findings of fact’ and ‘findings of law’. In addition, review comes with various procedural restrictions – for example, some issues can be reviewed without acknowledging the position of the trial court, other issues allow (or mandate) deference to the trial court, et cetera.

The Standard of Review
-The original case was a bench trial, not conducted in front of a jury.
-On appeal, factual finding must be clearly in error to reversed, but legal conclusions are examined as if the appeals court were hearing the case for the first time.

-A worrying quote from the majority opinion:
“Findings will be deemed clearly erroneous if, for example, ‘even though there is some evidence to support the finding, the reviewing court, on review of the record, is left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made’ or if the findings were made using ‘incorrect legal standards.’” (p.9)

In the Analysis, Conclusion, and Dissent section (to be published Wednesday, July 6) next series of posts, I’ll cover the legal reasoning offered by the majority opinion, contrast those reasons with the dissenting opinion, and explain my reservations about the outcome of this case.

-J. McL.    

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