US Supreme Court tosses NC legislative districts; no special election ordered
Posted June 5
Washington — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday upheld without comment a lower court's ruling that North Carolina lawmakers illegally relied too much on the race of voters when they drew 28 state House and state Senate districts in 2011.
But the justices vacated the court's order to immediately redraw the districts and hold a special election this year, saying other remedies should be considered.
"Although this Court has never addressed whether or when a special election may be a proper remedy for a racial gerrymander, obvious considerations include the severity and nature of the particular constitutional violation, the extent of the likely disruption to the ordinary processes of governance if early elections are imposed, and the need to act with proper judicial restraint when intruding on state sovereignty," the high court ruled. "Rather than undertaking such an analysis in this case, the District Court addressed the balance of equities in only the most cursory fashion."
The Supreme Court ruling sends the matter back to the lower court, which could order new districts in time for the regular cycle of elections in 2018.
Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which represented the plaintiffs in the case, said she plans to keep pushing for new districts and new elections this year.
"It means voters will continue to suffer the harms they've had all along being in districts that are not fairly drawn," Earls said of the Supreme Court's decision not to uphold the lower court's call for immediate changes.
Republican legislative leaders applauded the decision to vacate the court order calling for a special election.
"It's very difficult to sit and draw maps when the rules keep changing as to what you're required to do and what's upheld," said Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell. "Hopefully, now moving forward to do fair and legal districts, we'll have a clear set of rules to know what we need to do as a General Assembly that are established, and most importantly, the federal courts have to respect our state constitution and our state laws."
Democrats hope new district maps will help them break the Republican stranglehold on the state legislature.
Democrats need to capture three House seats or six Senate seats currently held by Republicans to eliminate the GOP's veto-proof majorities. That would enhance the power of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
"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," 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."
A panel of three federal judges last August struck down the 19 House and nine Senate districts, determining that the Republican-controlled General Assembly had wrongly packed too many black voters into specific House and Senate districts to make other districts more favorable to GOP candidates.
"These districts went street by street, dividing neighbors from each other, dividing precincts in ways that just didn't make sense other than race," Earls said. "Now, we'll have districts that follow county lines and make more sense."
See the districts ruled unconstitutional
The high court's action follows last month's ruling in which the justices struck down two North Carolina congressional districts on the same grounds.
Good-government watchdog groups called for lawmakers to pass legislation creating a nonpartisan commission to handle redistricting in the future.
"These two lawsuits are among more than 40 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, executive director of 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."
"It's, to the voter, another reminder that we have a broken redistricting process in North Carolina," said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina.
"While there's always partisan interests in redistricting, I think what we'll see districts that are much more fair and much more easy for the public to understand," Earls said.