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Supreme Court: NC voters must prove harm from partisan congressional map

Posted June 25, 2018 9:48 a.m. EDT
Updated June 25, 2018 1:08 p.m. EDT

This map shows the new congressional districts drawn during the Feb. 18 redistricting session.

— The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday said North Carolina voters who challenged the legality of congressional district maps state lawmakers drew in 2016 need to show how they have been harmed by those maps.

The ruling, which comes days after the Supreme Court issued a similar decision in a partisan gerrymandering case out of Wisconsin, means the three-judge panel that ruled in January that North Carolina lawmakers were too partisan in drawing congressional district lines must hear the case again.

"While it’s unfortunate that the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear this case right away, we are optimistic that the lower court will recognize, like they did in January, that North Carolina’s partisan gerrymandering is so egregious that it is unconstitutional and that our clients are the appropriate parties to be raising such claims," Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which is representing voters in the case, said in a statement.

"The harm done to voters when they are packed and cracked into districts that discriminate against them based on their political affiliations is clear, and we will continue to pursue justice for our clients and all voters who deserve fair election districts," Riggs said. "We hope to get this case back before the U.S. Supreme Court next term, in time for fair districts for 2020."

Lawmakers were forced to redraw the congressional map after courts said two of the 13 districts were racially gerrymandered when they were drawn in 2011. To avoid such problems the second time around, lawmakers said they would completely ignore the race of voters and focus solely on party affiliation and voting patterns.

The chief map-maker in the state House, Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, declared at the time that the new map was built to elect 10 Republicans and three Democrats to the U.S. House "because I do not believe it's possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats."

Common Cause and the League of Women Voters filed suit, accusing the Republican majority of packing minority voters, most of whom vote Democratic, into certain districts to lessen their voting strength in adjacent GOP strongholds.

The three-judge panel agreed, ruling that the new map violated the First Amendment rights of voters to free speech and association based on political beliefs and the Fourteenth Amendment by treating some voters unequally. They initially ordered the General Assembly to redraw the maps again before this year's elections, but the Supreme Court quickly put that part of the ruling on hold.

Last week, the high court told Wisconsin plaintiffs in a similar partisan gerrymandering case that they hadn't shown individual harm from the map there, so the case was sent back to a lower court to give them the opportunity to do so. In light of that ruling, the court handled North Carolina's case the same way.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the Wisconsin decision that the Supreme Court's role "is to vindicate the individual rights of the people appearing before it," not generalized partisan preferences.

"Our legal fight against partisan gerrymandering continues, and we are confident the court will ultimately affirm our landmark victory in this case," Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, said in a statement. "Our plaintiffs clearly have standing and have suffered real harm by the legislature’s extreme partisan gerrymandering. We must end gerrymandering to ensure all voters have a voice in our democracy."