The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday put a court-ordered legislative redistricting and 2017 special election on hold while it reviews Republican legislators’ appeal in an ongoing lawsuit.
A lower federal court ruled months ago that the current legislative districts are an unconstitutional racial gerrymander, and it ordered the General Assembly to draw new districts by March 15 and hold a rare off-year election in altered districts this November.
Tuesday’s Supreme Court order puts that order on hold at least until a Jan. 19 conference among the justices at which they will consider an appeal seeking to keep the current districts in place.
From that conference behind closed doors, it could become clearer whether there will be elections held in 2017.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
The justices could immediately dismiss the appeal and keep the order for new maps and new elections this year in effect. Or they could ask attorneys involved in the case to give them more briefs in the case and set arguments for later in the year, leaving the question of an election this year ambiguous.
Since the court is currently missing a ninth justice following Antonin Scalia’s death, a 4-4 decision would keep the lower court’s ruling in place.
State Rep. David Lewis, a Dunn Republican who leads redistricting efforts in the House, praised the court’s action in a tweet Tuesday afternoon. “#FairAndLegal No 2017 elections for #ncga. #SCOTUS halts flawed, partisan, lower court ruling,” he wrote.
Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore issued a statement saying they “are grateful the U.S. Supreme Court has quashed judicial activism and rejected an attempt to nullify the votes of North Carolinians in the 2016 legislative elections”
But the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which is representing opponents of the current districts in the lawsuit, issued a statement downplaying the impact of Tuesday’s order.
“Today’s action just puts everything on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court considers the appeal of whether the district court was correct to order special elections in 2017,” executive director Anita Earls said. “On behalf of our clients, we continue to trust that the district court’s ruling will be upheld and new districts ultimately will be drawn that are not based on race.”
Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Charlotte Democrat and a vocal opponent of the current districts, noted that the order leaves the political schedule for 2017 in doubt.
Jackson is among Democrats who have already been recruiting potential legislative candidates and raising awareness for a special election. The Democratic Party is hoping strong turnout in a 2017 election could allow it to pick up legislative seats and break the GOP’s veto-proof majorities – which would give Gov. Roy Cooper more power.
“This ruling means we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Jackson tweeted. “Elections in 2017 will depend on whether SCOTUS agrees to hear the appeal.”
Republican legislative leaders had filed an emergency petition asking the court to stop the redistricting order and special election. They asked the court to act before this year’s legislative session begins on Wednesday.
The lawmakers’ request for emergency intervention went to Chief Justice John Roberts because he is the justice assigned to preside over such requests from North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, South Carolina and Washington, D.C.
He could act on such a petition by himself or he could enlist others on the court for their feedback. The order released Tuesday said Roberts referred the request to the court, but did not list whether there was any dissent among the eight justices.
The Republicans argued in a court brief filed earlier Tuesday that an off-year special election is an “extreme remedy ... that cuts more than two-thirds of the state legislators’ constitutionally prescribed terms in half,” adding that the order is “entirely unprecedented and entirely imprudent.”
Legislators’ attorneys made the case that a typical order in a redistricting case would require redrawn districts to take effect for the next regularly scheduled election – which in North Carolina isn’t until 2018.
They wrote that if the court didn’t put the redistricting process on hold and later overturned the lower court ruling, “it would be too late to get back the time and resources the legislature will have expended drawing new maps on an abbreviated schedule.”
The three-judge panel that ordered the 2017 election had argued in its November ruling that “while special elections have costs, those costs pale in comparison to the injury caused by allowing citizens to continue to be represented by legislators elected pursuant to a racial gerrymander.”
The U.S. Supreme Court is also considering another gerrymandering lawsuit on North Carolina congressional districts that a lower court ruled unconstitutional last year.
The court held oral arguments on that case in December, and it’s unclear when it will issue a ruling. North Carolina’s members of Congress took office this month under redrawn districts that comply with a lower court ruling, but if the Supreme Court overturns that ruling, state legislators could get the option to return to old maps in the 2018 election.
Staff writer Anne Blythe contributed to this report