Federal court ruling corrects gerrymandered NC districts

North Carolina’s Republican leaders have spent years dodging and denying the unfairness of the extreme gerrymandering they imposed on state and congressional voting districts after they took control of the General Assembly in 2011. But the truth is beginning to break through.

Late Friday, a panel of three federal judges ruled in favor of plaintiffs challenging the lines of North Carolina’s 1st and 12th congressional districts. The panel ruled that the redistricting was based on the illegal use of racial quotas that violated the constitutional rights of black voters. The judges ordered the lines redrawn within two weeks.

State Republican leaders immediately complained that the order is coming too close to the March 15 primary. The decision could upend a 12th District primary in which some absentee ballots have already been cast, and races in other congressional districts also could be affected. Avoiding that disruption will likely be the basis of a Republican request for an emergency stay of the judges’ order.

But the late hour is not the judges’ fault. Republicans brought this on themselves. They gerrymandered to an unprecedented extent not only these two districts but the entire map of legislative and congressional districts. Then the Republican-led General Assembly – perhaps trying to outrun other court challenges – moved up the primaries for state and congressional offices from May to the presidential primary in March.

The Republicans’ electoral gamesmanship is disappointing, but not unexpected. What is more disturbing is the state Supreme Court’s complicity through its unwarranted delays in ruling on the maps. After a challenge to the redistricting was heard by the court in January 2014, the court waited almost a year before upholding the maps.

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected that decision last April and told North Carolina’s Supreme Court to reconsider it in light of its ruling on Alabama’s misuse of racial quotas in redistricting. Again the state Supreme Court dawdled for seven months over a case its justices knew well. In December, it reaffirmed the validity of the maps in a decision along partisan lines.

The state Supreme Court’s foot dragging has narrowed the window for overturning the maps. Two election cycles have already occurred using maps that may be thrown out and now there’s likely to be a third state legislative election based on them. At a minimum, given the ruling on districts 1 and 12, North Carolina already has held votes twice in unconstitutional congressional districts.

Now the legal protection the state Supreme Court provided for the gerrymandering is unraveling. The federal ruling stressed the state Supreme Court’s error by citing December’s dissent by state Associate Justice Cheri Beasley, who said disenfranchisement of black voters is not excused by saying it is based on politics rather than race.

Plaintiffs in federal and state courts argue that the racial quota tactic pervaded the redistricting process and more state districts should be redrawn. Now it looks as though the federal courts agree and may yet require that North Carolina conduct its elections in ways that don’t violate voters’ constitutional rights.