State Politics

US Supreme Court affirms NC legislative districts as racial gerrymanders

People wait in line to enter the US Supreme Court, on April 19, 2017 in Washington, DC.
People wait in line to enter the US Supreme Court, on April 19, 2017 in Washington, DC. Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday affirmed a lower court ruling that found 28 North Carolina legislative districts to be illegal racial gerrymanders that diluted the overall impact of black voters.

But the justices did not agree with the panel of three federal judges who decided that new maps should be drawn and special elections should be held in 2017 to correct the district lines approved by the Republican-led General Assembly in 2011.

The Supreme Court order states the panel had not provided a strong enough basis for why it took the extraordinary step of calling for special elections this year. The order sends the case back to the lower court for reconsideration.

The order came five days after the justices met behind closed doors to decide whether to take up the case filed by 31 North Carolina residents in 2015.

In August 2016, a panel of three federal judges found that lawmakers relied too heavily on race in drawing the districts that elect members of the state House and Senate.

The judges later ordered new maps drawn by March 2017 and elections in any new districts held the same year.

State lawmakers appealed the decision in late 2016. While questions lingered about whether the country’s high court would take up the case, the redrawing of the districts was put on hold.

The Supreme Court order, issued Monday morning, was critical of how the three-judge panel came to its decision to call for new maps and special elections.

The order said the judges considered “inequities” caused by the gerrymandered maps and the great costs of ordering special elections “in only the most cursory fashion.”

“(T)he court simply announced that ‘(w)hile special elections have costs,’ those unspecified costs ‘pale in comparison’ to the prospect that citizens will be ‘represented by legislators elected pursuant to a racial gerrymander,’ ” the order states. “That minimal reasoning would appear to justify a special election in every racial-gerrymandering case – a result clearly at odds with our demand for careful case-specific analysis. For that reason, we cannot have confidence that the court adequately grappled with the interests on both sides of the remedial question before us.”

In court filings in late May, attorneys for state lawmakers argued against holding elections in 2017, saying it would be “exceedingly difficult (if not entirely unrealistic)” to draw new maps and hold elections in any new districts by November.

Attorneys for the challengers argued against any further delay in a court filing last week.

“The court previously called for holding elections later this year in newly drawn districts. We think there is still time to implement special elections in the impacted districts, and we will do everything we can to make sure that happens,” Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, counsel for the redistricting challengers, said in a statement on Monday. “Many North Carolinians have been participating in unfair elections in racially gerrymandered districts for far too long. It’s time to fix this problem.”

Republicans Ralph Hise, a state senator from Mitchell County who heads the select committee on elections, and David Lewis, a House member from Harnett County who helped lead the redistricting, issued a joint statement after the high court asked the three-judge panel to reconsider its order calling for new maps and elections in 2017, months after the 2016 elections.

“We are encouraged the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the lower court’s politically-motivated attempt to force a special legislative election in 2017 and its efforts to ‘suspend provisions of the North Carolina Constitution,’ ignore voters’ constitutional right to elect representatives to two-year terms, and effectively nullify their votes from 2016,” Hise and Lewis said in the statement.

At issue were nine state Senate districts and 19 state House districts, as carved out in a plan adopted by the Republican-controlled legislature in 2011.

“Whether the election is November 2018 or earlier, redrawing the districts is good for our democracy by leveling the playing field for free and fair elections,” Gov. Roy Cooper said in a statement. “The people should be able to choose their representatives in competitive districts instead of the representatives being able to choose the people in lopsided, partisan districts.”

This is the third Supreme Court decision in recent weeks on lawsuits challenging the North Carolina maps drawn in 2011 after the 2010 census.

In May, the country’s high court agreed in a 5-3 opinion that two of the state’s congressional districts were illegal racial gerrymanders.

Last week, in light of that ruling, the justices sent a different lawsuit challenging both the congressional and legislative districts back to the state Supreme Court for a third review. The state court on two previous reviews upheld the districts, saying that though race played a role in the development of the district lines, the lawmakers had done so to comply with the Voting Rights Act.

There is a redrawing of lines for congressional and legislative districts every 10 years to respond to population changes reflected in the U.S. Census numbers.

But across the country, the political party in power often changes the lines for partisan advantage, which the courts have allowed to some extent.

The courts have not allowed mapmakers to use race as a driving force in the creation of districts, and that’s what challengers in several North Carolina lawsuits have contended happened.

The federal courts have ruled that Republicans relied too heavily on the use of race as they drew new legislative and congressional lines in 2011.

Republicans have contended that the district lines, which have been used in three election cycles for elections to the General Assembly, were drawn for partisan gain.

Advocates for nonpartisan redistricting highlighted the ruling this week and the decision on the two congressional districts to underscore their calls for reform.

“These two lawsuits are among more than forty instances where a court has had to intervene in NC redistricting since 1980. North Carolina needs to change the way it does redistricting,” Jane Pinsky, a representative for the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, said in a statement. “We need a nonpartisan process that allows citizens to decide who represents them, not one that permits legislators to choose who their voters will be.”

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1

Where were the racial gerrymanders?

In August 2016, a panel of three federal judges ruled that Republicans who led the 2011 redrawing of districts to elect state Senate and House members relied too heavily on the race of voters in 28 districts. The judges agreed with challengers of the maps, ruling that map drawers had unconstitutionally packed black voters into the districts and weakened their overall voting power in the surrounding districts.

The following districts were found to be racial gerrymanders.

N.C .House districts:

5, 7, 12, 21, 24, 29, 31, 32, 33, 38, 42, 43, 48, 57, 58, 60, 99, 102, 107

N.C. Senate districts:

4, 5, 14, 20, 21, 28, 32, 38, 40

Any redrawing of the unconstitutional districts is likely to have an impact on the shape of surrounding districts.

What still has to be decided in court?

Since the 2011 redistricting, more than a half-dozen lawsuits have been filed challenging the shape of districts that North Carolina voters use to elect representatives in the U.S. Congress and N.C. General Assembly.

▪ After North Carolina voters David Harris, Christine Bowser and Samuel Love filed a lawsuit, North Carolina’s 1st and 12th congressional districts as drawn in 2011 – one in the northeastern part of the state and the other in the Piedmont – were found to be racial gerrymanders. The U.S. Supreme Court in late May upheld a ruling by a three-member panel of federal judges that forced the redrawing of congressional maps in 2016.

▪ Those redrawn congressional maps were then challenged as partisan gerrymanders by Common Cause and the League of Women Voters. Those cases could test the breadth to which the courts allow redistricting for partisan advantage.

▪ A lawsuit filed initially in state court by former N.C. state legislator Margaret Dickson and others challenging General Assembly lines and congressional lines drawn in 2011. A three-judge panel in state court upheld the maps in 2013, saying that while race played a role in the drawing of the lines, legislators had done so to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act. The state Supreme Court has twice upheld that ruling. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back to North Carolina’s highest court for a third review that takes into account the finding of racial gerrymandering in the 1st and 12th districts. Since the last review of the case, the state Supreme Court has shifted to majority-Democrat. The hearing in state court has not been scheduled yet. The typical time frame for moving a case from one court to another is 25 days, unless otherwise specified.

▪ A lawsuit filed by Sandra Little Covington and 30 other North Carolina voters challenged General Assembly districts. The U.S. Supreme Court decided on Monday not to review a ruling issued in August 2016 by three federal judges who found nine state Senate districts and 19 state House districts to be illegal racial gerrymanders. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling in that case, but canceled an order in which the judges called for special elections this year. That question could go back to the panel this summer for an additional decision in the case.