The U.S. Supreme Court has decided to take on a Wisconsin case testing whether lawmakers across the country can go too far in drawing voting districts to minimize the influence of voters for political purposes.
The case could have sweeping implications for other states where redistricting conflicts are not yet settled in the courts, including North Carolina.
The Supreme Court is being asked to decide whether a lower court was correct in its finding that a Republican-led redistricting in Wisconsin was unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court has issued many rulings, including over the past month in North Carolina cases, that toss out state electoral maps because they have been gerrymandered to reduce the influence of racial minorities.
But the justices have not so far found a plan unconstitutional because of partisan gerrymandering – when a majority party draws the state’s electoral districts to give such an advantage to its candidates that it dilutes the votes of those supporting the other party.
“Partisan and racial gerrymanders drive too many Americans from our democratic process because citizens feel their votes don’t count and sadly in states like Wisconsin and North Carolina today many of those citizens are absolutely right,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause, an organization pushing for redistricting reform. “Politicians should not be choosing their voters, voters should be choosing their politicians because that is democracy as the Founders intended it.”
Wisconsin’s legislative leaders asked the Supreme Court in a legal brief to reject any effort that “wrests control of districting away from the state legislators to whom the state constitution assigns that task, and hands it to federal judges and opportunistic plaintiffs seeking to accomplish in court what they failed to achieve at the ballot box,” the Washington Post reported.
North Carolina has three cases pending in federal court challenging the breadth to which lawmakers can draw districts for partisan gain. All three are focused on the state’s congressional districts where Republicans hold 10 of 13 seats.
In 2010, Democrats held an eight-to-five advantage in the North Carolina congressional delegation.
But the Republicans have maintained their 10 to 3 advantage for the past six years.
Claims of racial and partisan gerrymandering are intertwined in the congressional district plans.
Two of the districts approved by lawmakers in 2011 – the 1st in the northeastern part of the state and the 12th, which stretched through the Piedmont – were found to be unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. The lawmakers packed too many African-American voters into the districts, weakening their overall influence in congressional elections, a panel of federal judges ruled in 2016, and new districts were drawn.
In the drawing of the 2016 congressional districts, Rep. David Lewis, a Republican from Harnett County who has been chairman of the redistricting committee, made a statement that has been cited in lawsuits related to partisan gerrymandering claims.
Lewis said at a meeting that he wanted the maps drawn “to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”
Efforts to reach Lewis on Monday were not immediately successful.
Common Cause and the League of Women Voters have filed two different lawsuits challenging the new maps as partisan gerrymanders, using some of the same legal arguments threaded throughout the Wisconsin case.
The Common Cause lawsuit highlights another comment Lewis made during the 2016 map drawing to try to ward off any attempt to overturn the districts as racial gerrymanders.
“I acknowledge freely that this would be a political gerrymander, which is not against the law,” Lewis said.
The lawsuits filed by Common Cause and the League of Women Voters were scheduled for a bench trial at the end of this month, but attorneys heard late Monday the proceedings would be delayed.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court justices could also be pondering arguments over questions of political gerrymandering in North Carolina.
On June 6, attorneys responded to questions from the U.S. Supreme Court clerk of courts about whether the voters who brought the lawsuit challenging the 2011 maps as racial gerrymanders had standing to challenge the 2016 maps as political gerrymanders.
Attorneys for N.C. lawmakers who led the drawing of maps argued no, that the initial case focused on the racial gerrymander claims and a panel of judges in a lower court had rejected their challenge that the 2016 maps not only were new illegal racial gerrymanders, but also partisan gerrymanders, too.
In their 8-page order in 2016 the judges said their “hands appear to be tied” given the lack of a judicial standard to evaluate partisan gerrymandering claims. The panel stressed, though, that its ruling was not an endorsement of, nor did it prevent further challenges to, the state’s remedial plan.
The challengers have continued to push their argument at the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The General Assembly’s bald partisan gerrymander is part of what can only be described as an ongoing assault on representative democracy in North Carolina by an entrenched majority in the General Assembly,” Marc Elias, a Washington-based attorney representing the challengers, responded to the clerk’s query.