James A. Wynn, W. Earl Britt and William L. Osteen Jr. are the three federal judges who on Tuesday rendered North Carolina’s congressional district maps unconstitutional in a profoundly important ruling. And these judges are appointees of three different presidents, Wynn by Barack Obama, Britt by Jimmy Carter and Osteen by George W. Bush, and are highly respected as experienced, clear-eyed jurists.
Basically, their ruling says congressional districts as drawn violated the U.S. Constitution’s equal-protection clause because they were designed to favor Republicans over Democrats. (Osteen dissented on one point on which Wynn and Britt also agreed, that the maps violated the free speech of challengers by trying to weaken the power of Democrats with which Republicans disagreed. But that didn’t change the power of the unanimous part of the ruling.)
So now lawmakers, meaning the Republicans in charge who are responsible for these ridiculous maps designed to guarantee Republican seats in 10 of 13 congressional districts, will have until Jan. 29 to come up with new maps to fix the partisan gerrymandering.
Republicans will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
This monumental ruling is the first time that federal judges have struck down districts for the U.S. Congress because of partisan gerrymandering. The case is thus historic.
How Republicans could have expected any other outcome in astonishing. After all, Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican who has led redistricting efforts, said at one point the maps were drawn to give his party a big majority. He even said, “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 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”
The majority opinion of this three-judge panel said, “On its most fundamental level, partisan gerrymandering violates ‘the core principle of republican government ... that the voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around.’ ”
And Republicans, woozy with having power over redistricting after 100 years or so, simply couldn’t control themselves and drew legislative and congressional districts to ensure their power, their majority – which they won under old maps, fair and square – would be maintained, no matter how skewed the district designs were.
In addition, the state’s been embroiled in legal challenges to district maps based on racial gerrymandering claims.
Republicans could, had they shown even a little restraint, probably have given themselves an advantage without huge legal challenges. But thanks to their greed for power and their willingness to protect their advantage no matter what, the state is now in a hurly-burly fight as the filing season for congressional seats approaches. Districts done in haste – should this ruling stand – will not be ideal, but if they can pass muster from these three judges, citizens can have more confidence in them than they do in the current ones.