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Judges to rule Friday on May 6 primary

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A panel of three federal judges is scheduled to meet Friday, Jan. 25, at 10 a.m. at the federal courthouse in New Bern to determine if North Carolina's May 6 primary will proceed as scheduled.

A lawsuit filed by former State Board of Elections chairman Bob Hunter, former state Rep. Frank Mitchell, a Republican from Iredell County, and former state Sen. Robert Rucho, a Republican from Charlotte, seeks to delay the primary so that the courts or the legislature can redraw North Carolina's legislative district boundaries.

Hunter and Co. are using as precedent a State Supreme Court ruling last August, which stated that a legislative district including part of Pender County was incorrectly drawn because it cut across several counties and was composed of less than 50 percent minority voters.

However, last week, the NAACP joined the list of defendants challenging the suit, stating that redrawing the lines violates the federal Voting Rights Act and is a veiled attempt to disenfranchise black voters by segregating them into fewer districts, thus diluting their political power.

It could also clear the decks for more Republicans to win—and maintain a stronghold—in those districts, since African Americans in North Carolina lean heavily Democratic.

The last time the legislature redrew the district lines, Rucho was on the losing end of the deal. After several lawsuits, in 2003, the Democrat-led General Assembly recarved the district map, and Rucho found himself in the same district as Republican state Sen. Robert Pittenger. Rucho opted not to run in '04, but his chivalry paid off: Pittenger, who recently retired from the General Assembly to run for lieutenant governor, has endorsed Rucho to replace him in the senate.

District lines are most commonly redrawn after the U.S. Census. In its August ruling, the State Supreme Court determined the current boundaries didn't need to be changed until after the 2010 Census.

If the judges rule the primary should be delayed to allow time for reconfiguring the districts, it is unclear if only state races would be affected, and the federal election could still be held. And if a state and a federal primary are held, it is uncertain how much extra money it could cost counties to hold two contests.

"Without knowing what the judges say, there's no way to tell what will happen," State Board of Elections Deputy Director of Administration Johnnie Mclean said.

The panel is composed of Bush appointees: Chief U.S. District Court Judge Louise Flanagan, a former federal magistrate who presides over North Carolina's Eastern District; Judge Allyson Duncan, the first African-American woman to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit; and Robert Conrad, chief U.S. district court judge for the Western District of North Carolina. According to his biography posted on the White House Web site, in 1999, Attorney General Janet Reno appointed Conrad to be chief of the Campaign Finance Task Force, which investigated irregularities in the 1996 presidential campaign and a U.S. Senate campaign.

Conrad has a reputation as a controversial judge. In his 2002 and 2005 confirmation hearings respectively, then-Sen. John Edwards and Sen. Patrick Leahy raised concerns about his views on the death penalty and abortion. Leahy criticized Conrad for his comment that Sister Helen Prejean's book, Dead Man Walking, was "liberal drivel" and that Planned Parenthood is a "most radical legal advocate of unfettered abortion on demand."

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