National News

Supreme Court Temporarily Blocks North Carolina Gerrymandering Ruling

Posted January 18, 2018 10:43 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday temporarily blocked a trial court’s order requiring North Carolina lawmakers to produce a revised congressional voting map, making it likely that the midterm elections this year will be conducted using districts favorable to Republican candidates.

The trial court had found that Republican legislators in the state had violated the Constitution by drawing congressional voting districts to hurt the electoral chances of Democratic candidates.

The Supreme Court’s move was expected and not particularly telling. The court, which is considering two other major tests of partisan gerrymandering, has granted stays in similar settings. It’s decisions in the two pending cases, from Wisconsin and Maryland, are likely to effectively decide the North Carolina case, too.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor noted dissents from Thursday’s order, which was brief and unsigned.

The previous North Carolina decision, issued by a three-judge panel last week, was the first from a federal court to strike down a congressional map as a partisan gerrymander. Republican state lawmakers, the court said, had violated the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection by drawing voting districts to their party’s advantage.

The judges noted that the legislator responsible for drawing the map had not disguised his intentions. “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats,” said the legislator, Rep. David Lewis, a Republican. “So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country.”

The plan worked. In 2016, the court said, Republican congressional candidates won 53 percent of the statewide vote. But they won in 10 of the 13 congressional districts, or 77 percent of them.

The Supreme Court has ruled that racial gerrymandering can violate the Constitution. But it has never struck down a voting map as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.

Republicans and, in private, many Democrats in North Carolina had expected the Supreme Court to stay last week’s ruling. But elected officials and political strategists had been preparing for the possibility of a hasty redrawing of the congressional map and an upending of carefully laid plans for the midterm campaigns.

Even the brief gap between the trial court’s ruling and the Supreme Court’s order left the state in turmoil weeks before the deadline to declare candidacies.

“Candidates are already running in districts across the state,” Thomas Mills, a Democratic candidate for Congress in 2016 and the publisher of PoliticsNC, a website, wrote in a column last week. “They’ve raised and spent thousands of dollars. Now, they don’t know whether they’ve wasted their time, energy and money or not. Maybe they’ll have a district in which to run, maybe they won’t.”

Few states in recent years have seen as much political turbulence as North Carolina, where Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2010 and now face off regularly with a Democratic governor. Many of the high-decibel clashes in North Carolina, even before Gov. Roy Cooper was elected in 2016, focused on elections and voting procedures.

A voter ID law has been the subject of contentious litigation, and a different three-judge panel concluded that many of the state’s legislative districts had been racially gerrymandered. In 2016, a court struck down a different version of the congressional map, saying it was a racial gerrymander.

But last week’s ruling stirred particular anger in Raleigh, the state capital, with Republicans infuriated that the judges had begun making arrangements for a court-appointed expert to draw a map as an alternative to one that the Legislature might develop.

Although observers said the three-judge panel’s ruling, stayed or not, had offered Democrats a valuable talking point in the months before midterm elections, Republicans welcomed the Supreme Court’s order on Thursday.

“We did fully expect this, but we are still grateful,” said Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, who complained in an interview that the lower court had tried to “inject chaos into our elections.” Woodhouse said he fully expected that this year’s elections would be carried out under the existing map.

Critics of the map expressed disappointment and frustration with the court’s order.

“We still believe the day is coming soon for the General Assembly to be held to account for this madness,” said Allison Riggs of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which represents the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, a group that challenged the map. “The law and the facts of this case make that clear.”

J. Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College, near Charlotte, said the Supreme Court’s order was an important, if perhaps temporary, win for Republicans in North Carolina.

“Certainly, Republicans will view this as a victory but probably a short-term victory,” he said. “They certainly dodged a bullet tonight. The question is: ‘How long do we have before the Wisconsin decision comes down, and what kind of impact will that have on 2018’s elections?'” In October, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case from Wisconsin. The trial court in that case had struck down a voting map for the state Assembly as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.

The Supreme Court has also agreed to decide whether Maryland Democrats crossed a constitutional line by redrawing House districts to flip a Republican-held seat to Democratic control.

In asking the Supreme Court to block the North Carolina ruling, state lawmakers said the trial court had made legal errors and unreasonable demands, notably in ordering new congressional maps to be drawn by Jan. 24.

The lawmakers’ brief reminded the justices that they had granted a stay in the Wisconsin case. “Particularly given the relief this court already granted to Wisconsin,” they wrote, “it makes no sense whatsoever to force North Carolina to immediately remedy a purported partisan gerrymandering violation and commence its 2018 election cycle under a new court-imposed map before this court can even decide whether and under what circumstances such claims may be adjudicated.”

In their own brief, lawyers for Democrats challenging the map said the lawmakers’ motive in seeking a stay was “plain as day.”

“The Republican contingent of the legislature wants to enjoy the fruits of their grossly unconstitutional actions for yet another election cycle,” the brief said.