RALEIGH, N.C. - 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 could 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.
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.
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.