The decision keeps pressure on North Carolina officials to redraw the district between Charlotte and Greensboro, and possibly could postpone the state's congressional primary May 5.
``The summer just got longer and hotter,'' said Sen. Roy Cooper, D-Nash, who chairs the Senate committee that handles congressional redistricting.
In a 6-3 decision, the court refused the request for a stay filed by the state attorney general's office. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens and Stephen G. Breyer voted to grant the stay, but the other justices voted against it.
``Federal courts have now thrown North Carolina's elections into chaos and the real loser in all this are the voters,'' said Attorney General Mike Easley. ``I had hoped that the federal courts would be more sensitive to the state's strong interest in an orderly elections process.''
The U.S. Supreme Court still has not ruled on North Carolina's appeal of the federal panel's ruling itself on the 12th District. There was no indication when one might be made.
Last week, the three federal judges gave the state until this coming Friday to come up with a schedule for drafting a redistricting plan. They also promised to issue a full opinion explaining why they object to the 12th District.
``I've told Ed McMahan (who chairs the House redistricting committee) to get his coloring pencils out and begin drawing a map,'' said House Speaker Harold Brubaker, R-Randolph.
``We'll just have to roll up our sleeves and go to work,'' Cooper said. ``Hopefully, we can come to an agreement on the children's insurance and then tackle the massive problem of redistricting.''
If the state is forced to redraw the congressional districts, Cooper said, the primary most likely would be held in late August or early September.
``That's about as soon as we could reasonably expect to get it done,'' he said.
Brubaker said the House is holding a bill approved by the Senate last year that would move primary elections to September. That could be a vehicle to move all the primaries this year, he said.
``We have some individuals that would contend the primaries are set and should be allowed to proceed,'' Brubaker said. ``Others say for the good of voter turnout, it would be best to package all of the primary elections together. It depends on where you live in the state.''
Legislators are in the midst of a special session to consider expanding health insurance to poor children. They cannot expand their deliberations to include redistricting unless Gov. Jim Hunt amends his proclamation calling the session, or two-thirds of the House and Senate agree to take it up.
Sean Walsh, a spokesman for Hunt, said the governor wants the children's insurance issue handled before redistricting is debated. Legislators have been trying to reach a compromise for three weeks.
``The governor wants to take care of the pressing needs for children's health insurance first, and beyond that, the governor would be as cooperative as he can be on this matter,'' Walsh said.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1996 ordered the state to redraw the 12th district. Last year, another federal panel approved the district's present shape, but the three-judge panel in Morganton found that draft unconstitutional April 3.
The judges said race played too large a role in drawing the 12th District. The same panel also has before it a lawsuit challenging the state's legislative districts.
Cooper said he hopes lawmakers will not have to tackle legislative redistricting as well as the congressional districts.
``There's been no hearing (on the legislative lawsuit) yet,'' Cooper said. ``This close to the election, we would hope the court would let the election go on.''
Brubaker said it would be reasonable to assume the panel would throw out legislative districts based on the same reasoning it used for the 12th districts.
``I would prefer that (legislative redistricting) to wait, quite frankly, until 2000 when we have new census figures,'' he said.
Cooper said lawmakers will have to decide whether to move all primary elections to the new date for congressional elections as part of its redistricting schedule.
``It's unfair to the candidates in those congressional elections to move those elections, so it would be unfair to other candidates as well,'' Cooper said.