North Carolina Supreme Court strikes down new voting maps

The North Carolina Supreme Court has made a decision on whether the new voting maps Republicans passed in November can stay in place ahead of the 2022 elections.

Posted Updated

Bryan Anderson & Travis Fain
, WRAL statehouse reporters

The North Carolina Supreme Court on Friday struck down new voting maps Republicans passed in November and ordered them redrawn—a decision that could help Democrats in the 2022 election cycle and prevent Republicans from expanding their power in the U.S. House and the North Carolina General Assembly.

The high court issued a 4-3 decision split along party lines—overturning a lower-court decision last month that upheld the maps and resolving a question that has been hanging over the primary election, which had already been delayed so the court system could hear the challenge from voting groups.

The maps outlining congressional and legislative districts in the state strongly favored the GOP, with the party expected to win 10 or 11 of the 14 U.S. House seats up for grabs. The maps, drawn by the legislature’s GOP majority, also gave Republicans a better chance of securing veto-proof majorities in the state House and Senate.

"When a districting plan systematically makes it harder for one group of voters to elect a governing majority than another group of voters of equal size, the General Assembly unconstitutionally infringes upon that voter's fundamental right to vote," the four registered Democrats on the state Supreme Court wrote in their order.

The court ruled that Republicans must submit new voting maps to a lower court by 5 p.m. Feb. 18. The maps must then be approved by a three-judge panel by noon on Feb. 23. If the new legislative and congressional boundaries are not submitted in time, the judges would be tasked with selecting a plan.

State Sen. Ralph Hise, a western North Carolina Republican who co-led the map-drawing process, criticized the court's decision, arguing that the justices set a precedent that will be difficult to unwind. Hise was one of several Republican leaders named in the lawsuit brought by voter rights groups, who said the GOP’s maps violated North Carolinians’ rights to a free election and equal protection under the law.

"Democratic judges, lawyers, and activists have worked in concert to transform the Supreme Court into a policymaking body to impose their political ideas," Hise said in a statement.

The state Supreme Court's ruling says election officials should expect to have districts finalized by Feb. 23 and primaries held as planned on May 17.

“We will work to comply with the schedule and administer elections in the new districts," said Pat Gannon, a spokesman for the State Board of Elections.

Republican House Speaker Tim Moore, who was also named in the lawsuit said in a statement that “the majority opinion is not based in law, precedent, or the history of this state, but rather the political whims of 4 out of 7 justices.”

Michael Whatley, chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, said in a statement, "We are extremely disappointed that the four Democrats on the Supreme Court have chosen political expediency over reason in order to invalidate the maps drawn by the NC General Assembly. This blatantly partisan decision flies in the face of centuries of judicial and legislative precedent and directly contradicts any plain reading of the North Carolina Constitution."

Chief Justice Paul Newby, a Republican, dissented, saying voters and lawmakers should be the ones to reign in partisan redistricting. His GOP colleagues, Justice Phil Berger Jr.—the son of Senate leader Phil Berger, who was also named in the lawsuit—and Justice Tamara Barringer, also opposed the court's decision.

"Unless and until the people alter the law to either limit or prohibit the practice of partisan gerrymandering, this Court is without any satisfactory or manageable legal standard and thus must refuse to resolve such a claim," Newby wrote.

The state Democratic Party and party leaders said the ruling would help protect residents’ right to vote.

"A healthy democracy requires free elections and the NC Supreme Court is right to order a redraw of unconstitutionally gerrymandered districts,” Gov. Roy Cooper said in a statement. “More work remains and any legislative redraw must reflect the full intent of this decision."

The decision gives a green light to primary elections that the high court delayed in December. The court had postponed candidate filing by 10 weeks, from March 8 to May 17, to ensure the case could work its way through the judicial system. A panel of judges in Wake County Superior Court, including two Republicans and one Democrat, unanimously ruled last month to keep the maps in place.

Although they found evidence of “pro-Republican partisan redistricting” that could generate election results that are “incompatible with democratic principles,” the Superior Court judges determined they didn’t have the power to rein in the legislature’s mapmaking powers.

The state Supreme Court then agreed to swiftly hear the voting groups’ appeal.

The core issue in the redistricting case was less about whether GOP lawmakers drew voting maps meant to boost their political power. Rather, the focus was whether state courts are permitted to do anything about it.

Voting rights groups challenging the maps argued that the boundaries Republicans drew violated residents’ rights under the state constitution to a free election and equal protection under the law.

Allison Riggs, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, argued before justices this week that the maps should be struck down because they dilute the voting power of racial minorities, particularly Black voters who overwhelmingly choose to elect Democrats.

On Friday, Riggs called the court's ruling “an unequivocal win for North Carolina’s Black voters who were most harmed by this extreme partisan gerrymander.”

Republicans have noted Black voters are not a monolith and have said they didn’t use racial data when drawing the maps.

“There was no racial data used, so it was not possible to discriminate against minorities,” Phil Strach, an attorney representing GOP lawmakers, argued in court.

Only one of the three registered Republicans on the high court, Newby, spoke during oral arguments. He noted a “fair” election isn’t explicitly afforded to voters.

Strach argued the state constitution’s free election and equal protection clauses do not address partisan gerrymandering. He also warned the four Democratic justices on the state Supreme Court who questioned him that they could be seen as legislating from the bench if they struck down the maps. Newby agreed in his dissent.

"The majority's requirements are so vague as to only allow this Court to ultimately determine a plan's constitutionality," Newby wrote. "With this ruling, the majority moves beyond traditional judicial decision-making in favor of judicially amending the constitution."


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