US Supreme rejects NC GOP effort to halt congressional map

The map a North Carolina enacted last month will be used in this year's elections. The decision is a blow to Republicans and gives a temporary win to Democrats.

Posted Updated
U.S. Supreme Court Building
Bryan Anderson
, WRAL state government reporter
RALEIGH, N.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday denied a last-ditch effort by North Carolina Republican lawmakers to toss out a congressional map that a state court enacted for this year’s elections.
The 6-3 decision from the nation's highest court ends a contentious, monthslong redistricting fight and allows the state to proceed with its May 17 primary. The congressional lines being used in the primary and general election are more favorable to Democrats than a pair of measures Republicans passed in November and February.

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which represented one of the plaintiffs that successfully challenged the original maps Republicans passed last year, praised the court's decision not to take up the case.

"Today’s move by the court reinforces that legislatures do not have a ‘free pass’ to violate protections against partisan gerrymandering when drawing districts that undeniably hurt voters," Hilary Harris Klein, the coalition's senior counsel for voting rights, said in a statement. "North Carolinians can now expect to vote in elections under fair congressional maps free of back-door dealings, extreme partisanship and racial discrimination.”

Senate leader Phil Berger, one of the Republicans seeking to halt the map, said the outcome disappointed him.

"We are disappointed in the U.S. Supreme Court's decision allowing elections under a Congressional map drawn by the conflict-ridden special masters to continue," Berger said in a statement. "While we're focusing on the 2022 elections, we will continue to evaluate this decision and next steps in this case."

Under the new voting map, which will only be in effect for this year's elections, Republicans are expected to win seven congressional seats, while Democrats would win six. An additional Raleigh-area congressional seat is likely a toss-up. North Carolina is nearly evenly divided along party lines.

A panel of North Carolina judges enacted a new congressional map.

The new boundaries were crafted by a panel of three judges in Wake County Superior Court, including two Republicans and one Democrat, with the help of three independent redistricting experts.

The 4-3 Democratic majority on North Carolina’s Supreme Court on Feb. 4 struck down a November congressional map that could have given Republicans 11 of the 14 U.S. House seats up for grabs. The justices allowed a lower court that first heard the case to oversee the redraw process. In response, the Republican-controlled legislature approved a plan last month without Democratic support that would have given the GOP as many as 10 seats, though four districts were competitive.
Rather than go with the legislature’s redraw, the lower court picked a plan of its own—a decision the state Supreme Court swiftly upheld. The judges in the case, however, approved the legislature’s redrawn state House and Senate maps over the objections of voting groups. Republicans only asked the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on the congressional map.

In their appeal, attorneys for GOP lawmakers sought to argue that the U.S. Constitution assigns full redistricting responsibility to state legislatures, not state courts.

Voting groups and state government officials, including the State Board of Elections, responded by citing past opinions from the high court that say courts should not change election rules shortly before an election— the so-called “Purcell principle.”

Conservative justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch said they would've taken up the case. Alito wrote in a dissenting opinion on the justices' behalf that he thought the GOP lawmakers had a stronger argument.

"The question presented is one of federal not state law because the state legislature, in promulgating rules for congressional elections, acts pursuant to a constitutional mandate under the Elections Clause," Alito wrote.

In a recent Alabama redistricting case, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote, “It is one thing for a State on its own to toy with its election laws close to a State’s elections. But it is quite another thing for a federal court to swoop in and re-do a State’s election laws in the period close to an election.”

Kavanaugh on Monday reaffirmed that position in a concurring opinion, writing that "it is too late for the federal courts to order that the district lines be changed for the [North Carolina] 2022 primary and general elections, just as it was too late for the federal courts to do so in the Alabama redistricting case last month."

While the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to intervene is a win for Democrats, the celebration could be short-lived.

The process for setting voting boundaries is expected to be revisited next year because the U.S. House map a panel of judges approved is only to be used for the 2022 election cycle. Mid-decade redraws in North Carolina are permissible for congressional maps, while state law and the state constitution are in conflict when it comes to legislative maps.

If Republicans retake the state Supreme Court by winning at least one of two state Supreme Court races this year and GOP lawmakers retain their legislative majorities, the party could potentially enact more partisan maps that benefit them.

Candidate filing for the upcoming statewide primary concluded at noon on Friday. Mail-in voting begins on March 28. The civilian voter registration deadline is April 22. One-stop, in-person early voting begins April 28 and ends at 3 p.m. May 14.


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