North Carolina’s contorted history of congressional redistricting
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North Carolina lawmakers will not have to draw new congressional election districts by next week, and voters across the state could go to the polls in the coming year to elect its 13 members of Congress from districts that three judges have found to be unconstitutional.
The U.S. Supreme Court issued an emergency stay of a partisan gerrymandering ruling that was the first of its kind for congressional districts.
The order, released on Thursday night, is two paragraphs long announcing the court’s agreement to halt a three-judge panel’s ruling from last week in which North Carolina’s 13 congressional districts were ruled unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders that violated free speech and equal protection rights provided in the U.S. Constitution.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor said they would not have granted lawmakers’ request. The court did not indicate whether the case would be resolved by the 2018 elections. Candidate filing for the elections in the coming year opens on Feb. 12.
Republicans who led the redistricting process in 2016 cheered the ruling. Democrats and voters who challenged the maps released swift criticism.
“We are grateful that a bipartisan U.S. Supreme Court has overwhelmingly halted the lower court’s 11th hour attempt to intervene in election outcomes, restored certainty to voters, and ensured that, in the coming days, candidates for office can file in the least gerrymandered and most compact Congressional districts in modern state history,” redistricting leaders Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, and Sen. Ralph Hise, a Mitchell County Republican, said in a statement.
Ambiguity over 2018 elections
“Voters and even most elected officials agree that partisan gerrymandering is violating the constitutional rights of Americans all over the country,” said Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and counsel for the challengers. “While we are disappointed that the stay was granted, North Carolinians deserve to participate in fair elections in 2018. We are optimistic that the U.S. Supreme Court will, before the end of this term in June, recognize the harm to our democracy created by partisan gerrymandering and find such egregious efforts to diminish voters’ power unconstitutional. We still believe the day is coming soon for the General Assembly to be held to account for this madness. The law and the facts of this case make that clear.”
The League of Women Voters and Common Cause in North Carolina filed the lawsuit in which three federal judges issued a ruling on Jan. 9 that struck down North Carolina’s election districts for Congress.
Lawmakers quickly announced their plans to appeal the decision and sought a stay first from the judges who ruled against them – James A. Wynn, a Barack Obama appointee to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and federal district judges W. Earl Britt, a Jimmy Carter appointee, and William L. Osteen Jr., a George W. Bush appointee – and then the country’s highest court after the panel of judges rejected the request.
The three-judge’s panel ruling was the first time federal judges have struck down congressional districts as partisan gerrymanders. A Wisconsin case that was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court late last year involves state legislative districts found to be partisan gerrymanders.
In North Carolina, Wynn and Britt also found that the 2016 redistricting plan designed to give Republicans wins in 10 of the 13 districts also violated the free speech of the challengers by trying to weaken the voices of Democrats with whom they did not agree. Osteen dissented from his colleagues on that point, but agreed overall that the maps were unconstitutional.
In the request for quick intervention from the U.S. Supreme Court, Phil Strach, the Raleigh-based attorney representing Republican lawmakers, stated in his 22-page request that the three-judge panel “has used an entirely novel legal theory to hopelessly disrupt North Carolina’s upcoming congressional elections.”
New calls for redistricting reform
Republican lawmakers urged the panel of judges to stay its ruling while the Supreme Court considered partisan gerrymandering cases from Wisconsin and Maryland.
They argued that there was “an extremely high likelihood” that in one or both of those cases, the high court’s ruling would make it necessary for the panel of judges considering any new North Carolina map to “revisit” its decision.
In their opposition to the lawmakers’ request, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters argued that North Carolina voters had already been asked to go through three election cycles with congressional districts that had either been found to be unconstitutional racial gerrymanders that weakened the influence of black voters, or more recently partisan gerrymanders meant to quiet opposition to the party in power.
“North Carolina voters deserve to have a fair map before the 2018 election, or they risk a fourth consecutive election under an unconstitutional map that does not reflect their preferences,” said Ruth Greenwood, senior legal counsel, voting rights and redistricting at Campaign Legal Center, which represented challengers in the case. “A single election under an unconstitutional map is one too many; four are intolerable. For that reason, the Supreme Court must move quickly to hear this case this term.”
Jane Pinsky, director of the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, has been a longtime advocate for nonpartisan redistricting and said the number of lawsuits over the decades shows a need for reform.
“We are disheartened by the US Supreme Court’s failure to support the people of NC and allow nonpartisan Congressional maps to be drawn,” Pinsky said in a statement. “It does strongly remind us the lawsuits are not the answer. NC has had about 40 judicial interventions in redistricting in the last almost 38 years. ...A system which takes the politics out of redistricting is really the only long term solution to this problem.”
A different three-judge panel that also includes Wynn is considering state House and state Senate districts.
In that case, challengers contend that maps adopted in 2017 violate the state and federal constitutions and fail to correct the unconstitutional racial gerrymandering found in maps used for the 2012, 2014 and 2016 elections.
By Thursday night, the federal judges had not yet ruled on the state legislative case but have told attorneys that they were aware of the tight timeline before the filing period.