Raleigh, N.C. — A federal lawsuit challenging North Carolina's congressional districts will move forward, a panel of federal judges decided Tuesday, instead of being put on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court tackles issues relevant to the case.
Common Cause v. Rucho is one of several lawsuits in North Carolina that have targeted election maps drawn by the General Assembly's Republican majority. But instead of alleging that voters' race was used to draw unconstitutional maps, plaintiffs in this case argue that the congressional map redrawn last year is overly partisan, amounting to a partisan gerrymander instead of a racial one.
Partisan gerrymanders have been accepted in the past; racial ones have not. But that may change. A case out of Wisconsin may set new precedents on partisan gerrymanders, and the Supreme Court is slated to hear that case in early October.
North Carolina legislators fighting Common Cause and the League of Women voters in a similar case here had hoped to put off their own litigation until the nation's high court decides the Wisconsin case.
A three-judge panel heard arguments on both sides of that request Tuesday morning in Raleigh and, by the afternoon, had shot down legislators' request for a stay. They issued an order to that effect and promised an opinion explaining their rationale would follow.
The case centers on congressional districts the legislature approved last year to correct a racial gerrymander that the courts found in the previous districts. This is separate from, but related to, the General Assembly's ongoing efforts this week to redraw state House and Senate districts that were also found unconstitutional due to racial gerrymanders.
During the congressional redraw last year, Republican legislators said they didn't take race into account at all and emphasized that point with blatant partisanship. They wrote a requirement that the new map should elect 10 Republican members of Congress and only three Democrats.
"I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats,” House Rules Chairman David Lewis, R-Harnett, said at the time.
Attorneys for the GOP majority argued Tuesday that the Supreme Court's decision in the Wisconsin case may be far-reaching enough to require re-adjudication of North Carolina's case if it proceeds prematurely. It doesn't make sense to move forward until more is known about the potential new precedent, they argued.
Lawyers on the other side said delays would make it difficult to produce new maps in time for the 2018 congressional elections. They argue that the gerrymander packs Democrats into certain districts to dilute their voting strength elsewhere and that this amounts to a violation of the First Amendment. Democrats are punished, the attorneys argued, for their political beliefs.