The U.S. Supreme Court won't immediately take up arguments about whether North Carolina Republican lawmakers went too far in 2016 when they redrew the state’s 13 congressional election districts to intentionally give their party a 10 to 3 advantage.
In an order released Monday, the high court sent the case back for further hearing in light of its decision in a Wisconsin case last week.
That means the challengers will have to persuade the three-judge panel that struck down the congressional districts as unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders that a voter in each district suffered harm.
The North Carolina case has some similarities to the Wisconsin case and a Maryland partisan gerrymander case that also was sent back to a lower court last week for further proceedings.
But North Carolina’s case has one prominent difference.
State Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, announced the party’s intention for drawing the election districts that would be used for voters to elect their congressional delegation.
“I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with eleven Republicans and two Democrats,” Lewis said at the time.
The redrawing occurred because the federal courts found that the redistricting plan drawn by Republicans in 2011 contained unconstitutional racial gerrymanders that weakened the influence of black voters.
Challengers hope to get the case back before the Supreme Court in time to affect the districts used in the 2020 election, said Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
“While it’s unfortunate that the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear this case right away, we are optimistic that the lower court will recognize, like they did in January, that North Carolina’s partisan gerrymandering is so egregious that it is unconstitutional and that our clients are the appropriate parties to be raising such claims," Riggs said..
North Carolina has been described as one of the most gerrymandered states, and over the past seven years voters have chosen elected officials for the General Assembly and U.S. Congress from election districts that were later struck down by the courts as either racial or partisan gerrymanders.
In an era in which mapmaking tools make it possible to draw election districts that pick up one house in a neighborhood while leaving another out, critics say the party in power is choosing voters for the candidates instead of the way the constitution intended.
There have been calls in North Carolina for the creation of a redistricting process to be done outside the political realm, but no legislation requiring that has been approved.
Concerned voters have looked to the U.S. Supreme Court for guidance.
Many consider Justice Anthony Kennedy to be the swing vote.
In a 2004 case from Pennsylvania, Kennedy was looking for a “limited and precise rationale … to correct an established violation of the Constitution in some redistricting cases.”
Though he did not find one in that case, he signaled his openness to striking down extreme partisan gerrymanders if the court could agree on a standard to do so.
In the Wisconsin partisan gerrymander case, in which the challengers asked the court to consider the state as a whole, the Supreme Court sent the case back saying the challenges must be brought district by district, with voters in each proving that their rights had been violated.
The Maryland case was sent back in an unsigned opinion that said the lower court hadn't been wrong when it decided not to make the state redraw the maps in time for the 2018 election.
In response to the rulings in those cases, attorneys for North Carolina lawmakers filed a brief last week with the Supreme Court saying the case over the state’s congressional districts should be sent back to the lower court to further address questions raised in the Wisconsin case.
But attorneys for the challengers argued that no further hearings were necessary, that voters in each of the 13 congressional districts could and had shown harm.
"Our legal fight against partisan gerrymandering continues, and we are confident the court will ultimately affirm our landmark victory in this case," Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause NC, which challenged the congressional districts with the League of Women Voters. "Our plaintiffs clearly have standing and have suffered real harm by the legislature’s extreme partisan gerrymandering. We must end gerrymandering to ensure all voters have a voice in our democracy.”
The court's decision in Rucho v. Common Cause means voters will go to the polls in November to elect members of Congress from districts that a federal court has struck down as partisan gerrymanders.
“Once again, North Carolinians will have to participate in an election with maps that have been declared unconstitutional," said Janet Hoy, co-president of the League of Women Voters of North Carolina.. "This decision diminishes the power of voters and only gives a voice to the politicians who draw the lines.."
Lewis, whose words have played a prominent part in the North Carolina lawsuit, said Monday that lawmakers considered other factors when redrawing the congressional lines in 2016.
"I’ve tried to make clear that politics was not the predominant factor in drawing the maps that have been challenged," Lewis said. "Both of the other cases that were remanded, it could be argued that politics was a much larger part of them. I certainly think the Supreme Court made the correct decision. .... We drew maps based on established criteria in which politics was not the predominant criteria.
"Despite the fact that my quote hasbeen spread all over the U.S., we did not maximize the number of Republican seats we could draw."
Staff writer Lynn Bonner contributed to this report.