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City of Greensboro v. Guilford Cnty. Bd. of Elections

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

July 23, 2015

CITY OF GREENSBORO, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
GUILFORD COUNTY BOARD OF ELECTIONS, Defendant

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 481

For THE CITY OF GREENSBORO, Plaintiff: DANIEL F. E. SMITH, JIM W. PHILLIPS, JR., BROOKS PIERCE MCLENDON HUMPHREY & LEONARD, LLP, GREENSBORO, NC; JULIA C. AMBROSE, BROOKS PIERCE MCLENDON HUMPHREY & LEONARD, L.L.P., RALEIGH, NC.

For LEWIS A. BRANDON, III, JOYCE JOHNSON, NELSON JOHNSON, RICHARD ALAN KORITZ, SANDRA SELF KORITZ, CHARLI MAE SYKES, Plaintiffs: ANITA S. EARLS, SOUTHERN COALITION FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE, DURHAM, NC; JIM W. PHILLIPS, JR., BROOKS PIERCE MCLENDON HUMPHREY & LEONARD, LLP, GREENSBORO, NC.

For GUILFORD COUNTY BOARD OF ELECTIONS, Defendant: JOHN MARK PAYNE, LEAD ATTORNEY, GUILFORD COUNTY ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, GREENSBORO, NC.

Page 482

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Catherine C. Eagles, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

In early July 2015, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law tat restructures both Greensboro city elections and the form of Greensboro city government. Many changes will take effect for the upcoming 2015 municipal elections, and others will go into effect in December 2015. The City of Greensboro and six of its citizens have filed suit, contending that the law violates their equal protection rights under the United States Constitution and the North Carolina Constitution.

The case presents two issues in the long run:

- Under what circumstances, if any, does the General Assembly's decision to treat one municipality and its voters differently from all other municipalities and their voters in connection with referendum rights and local control over form of government, number and boundaries of districts, method of electing council members, and style of elections violate the Equal Protection Clause?
- Did the General Assembly violate the " one person, one vote" principles of the Equal Protection Clause by the way it redistricted and reapportioned the eight Greensboro City Council seats?

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In the short run, the question before the Court today is whether the Court should enjoin the Guilford County Board of Elections from holding the 2015 municipal elections in conformity with the new statute in order to prevent irreparable harm to the plaintiffs caused by these alleged equal protection violations.

It appears on the current record that the new statute deprives Greensboro voters, alone among municipal voters in the State, of the right to change the City's municipal government by referendum and otherwise treats the City of Greensboro and its voters differently from all other municipalities and municipal voters, without a rational basis. Therefore, the plaintiffs are likely to prevail on the merits. The plaintiffs would suffer irreparable harm should the 2015 election go forward under the new law, and the public interest and the equities favor a return to the pre-existing status quo pending resolution of this lawsuit. The Court will grant the plaintiffs' motion for preliminary injunction.

BACKGROUND[1]

In early July 2015, just days before the filing period for the 2015 Greensboro City Council election was scheduled to open, the North Carolina General Assembly passed House Bill 263, referenced here as Session Law 2015-138 or the Act.[2] The Act makes changes both to the way the City Council will be elected in 2015 and to the City's governmental structure, including redistricting all eight City Council seats and reducing the power of the Mayor. The Act also withdraws from the City of Greensboro and its voters certain statutory rights available to all other municipalities and municipal voters statewide; these include the right of a city council to change its structure, see N.C. Gen. Stat. § 160A-102, the right of voters to reject such a restructuring through a referendum, see id. § 160A-103, and the right of voters to initiate such a restructuring through a referendum. See id. § 160A-104.

In 1969, the General Assembly adopted the statute now codified at N.C. Gen. Stat. § 160A-101 et seq., which delegates to all cities, towns, and villages significant control over their own forms of government. Under Chapter 160A, every North Carolina municipality and its voters have the right to select the structure and form of the municipality's government. See generally id. § 160A-101 et seq. Section 160A-101 allows every North Carolina municipality to adopt or alter its name, id. § 160A-101(1); to select the style of the municipal corporation and its governing board, id. § 160A-101(2); to decide the number, terms of office, and mode of election of council members, id. § 160A-101(4)-(6); to select the method of conducting municipal elections, id. § 160A-101(7); to determine the method of selecting the mayor, id. § 160A-101(8); and to decide the form (mayor-council or council-manager) of municipal government. Id. § 160A-101(9). It also requires a city council to draw the boundaries of any districts and to apportion those districts. Id. § 160A-101(6).

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Under Chapter 160A, each city council is authorized to change from one of the options identified in § 160A-101 to another by means of an ordinance amending the city's charter, subject to compliance with a number of notice and procedural requirements, including a public hearing. See id. § 160A-102. Every council is permitted, but not required, to condition adoption of such an ordinance on approval by the people. See id. If a council chooses to proceed with a vote by the people, a special election on the ordinance must be held no less than 70 days after the ordinance is adopted. See id.

If a city council enacts such a change without approval by a vote of the people, public notice of the enactment is required. See id. In every municipality, any change made without voter approval is subject to a referendum if the required number of voters submit a timely petition. See id. § 160A-103. If a petition meeting the numerical requirements is presented to the council within 30 days of public notice, every council must submit its proposed change to a referendum before it can go into effect. See id.

Each city's municipal voters themselves are also authorized to initiate changes to city governance by referendum. See id. § 160A-104. Chapter 160A imposes certain numerical and procedural requirements for such petitions, but the subject matter of a referendum petition can cover any topic set forth in § 160A-101, except for drawing district boundaries. See id. § 160A-101(6) (" An initiative petition may specify the number of single-member electoral districts to be laid out, but the drawing of district boundaries and apportionment of members to the districts shall be done in all cases by the council." ); id. § 160A-104 (" The [initiative] petition shall set forth the proposed amendments by describing them . . . with reference to the pertinent provisions of [N.C. Gen. Stat. § ] 160A-101 . . . ." ). Upon receipt of a referendum petition, a council must call a special election to consider the proposed changes. See id. § 160A-104.

Since 1983, Greensboro has chosen, pursuant to Chapter 160A, to use the Mayor-Council form of government, with the Mayor and three council members elected at-large and five council members elected from single-member districts. (Doc. 34 at ¶ 7.) All council members and the Mayor are elected to two-year terms. ( See Doc. 34 at ¶ ¶ 2, 8.) Elections are held in odd-numbered years, see generally N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163-279, with the Mayor and all council members on the ballot each election.[3] Since 1973, the City has used a primary/election method for selecting City Council members, by which a primary is held in October followed by a general election in November between the two candidates who received the most votes in the primary. ( See Doc. 34 at ¶ 16); see also N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163-294(b).

Before passage of the Act, no aspect of Greensboro's governance and electoral system was under challenge. One referendum was scheduled, which was initiated by the City Council to change council member terms from two years to four years. (Doc. 33 at ¶ 8; see also Doc. 1 at ¶ 40.) The filing period for the 2015 municipal elections was scheduled to open on July 6 and close on July 17. (Doc. 24-3 at 2.)

The Act made many changes to the City's governmental structure and elections process. The Act changes the terms of office for City Council members and the

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Mayor from two years to four years. (Doc. 1-1 at § 2.(c)); see also N.C. Gen. Stat. § 160A-101(4), (8). It changes the mode of election of the City Council from three at-large districts and five single-member districts to eight single-member districts, and it sets the boundaries for those new single-member districts. (Doc. 1-1 at § 2.(c)); see also N.C. Gen. Stat. § 160A-101(6). It changes the form of elections from nonpartisan primary and election, see N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163-294, to nonpartisan election and runoff election.[4] (Doc. 1-1 at § 2.(f)); see also N.C. Gen. Stat. § § 160A-101(7), 163-293. The Act made these changes effective for the 2015 municipal elections and delayed the filing period, which was originally set to run from July 6 through July 17, to July 27 through August 7. (Doc. 1-1 at § 3; see also Doc. 24-3 at 2.)

The Act also requires the City to operate under the Council-Manager form of government. (Doc. 1-1 at § 2.(a)); see also N.C. Gen. Stat. ยง 160A-101(9)(a), (b). The Act limits the Mayor's voting rights, allowing the Mayor to vote in City Council matters only when there is a tie and in certain employment-related ...


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