A panel of federal judges Thursday rejected the most recent challenge of North Carolina’s newly drawn congressional districts.
In the unanimous decision, the three district judges left open the possibility for a different lawsuit to weigh the question of blatant partisan gerrymandering.
The effect is that maps drawn by the legislature’s Republican leadership in February remain valid as voters cast early ballots in the primary election to decide which congressional candidates are on the ballot in November.
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The ruling came almost four months after the General Assembly redrew congressional lines in a response to a court order declaring two of North Carolina’s districts unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.
In March, attorneys for David Harris of Durham and Christine Bowser of Mecklenburg County asked the three-judge panel to reject the new maps as “a blatant, unapologetic partisan gerrymander” that provided no legal remedy to the 2011 maps that were struck down on Feb. 5.
The challengers also argued that the new maps intentionally limited minority representation.
But the three-judge panel described that argument as “vague” in the Thursday ruling.
Many were watching the case as one that could test the limits of drawing districts for partisan advantage — something courts have allowed, to an extent.
Rep. David Lewis, a Republican from Harnett County who helped shepherd the 2011 maps and February redesigns through the General Assembly, said many times that race was not considered at all when the 13 congressional districts were redrawn as a remedy.
The maps, Lewis said, were drawn to give Republicans a 10-3 advantage in the state’s congressional delegation.
Though the map challengers acknowledged that the country’s highest court had not yet developed a “single, overarching framework” for claims of partisan gerrymandering, they suggested that the three-judge panel in North Carolina need not worry about that.
The challengers argued that maps drawn and approved by legislators on Feb. 19 were “an intentional manipulation of district lines for the purpose of disadvantaging and drowning out more than half of the electorate because of those citizens’ political views.”
The three-judge panel noted that it did not have enough evidence before it to determine the question of political gerrymandering.
“While we find our hands tied, we note that it may be possible to challenge redistricting plans when partisan considerations go ‘too far,’” the judges stated in the ruling. “But it is presently obscure what ‘too far’ means.”
The challengers, the judges stated, had not provided the court with a “suitable standard” for deciding that. “Therefore, it does not seem, at this stage, that the Court can resolve this question based on the record before it,” the ruling stated. “…The Court reiterates that the denial of the plaintiffs’ objections does not constitute or imply an endorsement of or foreclose any additional challenges” to the redrawn maps.