Supreme Court Punts on Partisan Gerrymandering in North Carolina

by | June 25, 2018

By Anne Blythe

The U.S. Supreme Court won't immediately take up arguments about whether North Carolina Republican lawmakers went too far in 2016 when they redrew the state's 13 congressional election districts to intentionally give their party a 10 to 3 advantage.

In an order released Monday, the high court sent the case back for further hearing in light of its decision in a Wisconsin case last week.

That means the challengers will have to persuade the three-judge panel that struck down the congressional districts as unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders that a voter in each district suffered harm.

The North Carolina case has some similarities to the Wisconsin case and a Maryland partisan gerrymander case that also was sent back to a lower court last week for further proceedings.

But North Carolina's case has one prominent difference.

State Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, announced the party's intention for drawing the election districts that would be used for voters to elect their congressional delegation.

"I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it's possible to draw a map with eleven Republicans and two Democrats," Lewis said at the time.

The redrawing occurred because the federal courts found that the redistricting plan drawn by Republicans in 2011 contained unconstitutional racial gerrymanders that weakened the influence of black voters.

North Carolina has been described as one of the most gerrymandered states, and over the past seven years voters have chosen elected officials for the General Assembly and U.S. Congress from election districts that were later struck down by the courts as either racial or partisan gerrymanders.

In an era in which mapmaking tools make it possible to draw election districts that pick up one house in a neighborhood while leaving another out, critics say the party in power is choosing voters for the candidates instead of the way the constitution intended.

There have been calls in North Carolina for the creation of a redistricting process to be done outside the political realm, but no legislation requiring that has been approved.

Concerned voters have looked to the U.S. Supreme Court for guidance.

Many consider Justice Anthony Kennedy to be the swing vote.

In a 2004 case from Pennsylvania, Kennedy was looking for a "limited and precise rationale ... to correct an established violation of the Constitution in some redistricting cases."

Though he did not find one in that case, he signaled his openness to striking down extreme partisan gerrymanders if the court could agree on a standard to do so.

In the Wisconsin partisan gerrymander case, in which the challengers asked the court to consider the state as a whole, the Supreme Court sent the case back saying the challenges must be brought district by district, with voters in each proving that their rights had been violated.

The Maryland case was sent back in an unsigned opinion that said the lower court hadn't been wrong when it decided not to make the state redraw the maps in time for the 2018 election.

In response to the rulings in those cases, attorneys for North Carolina lawmakers filed a brief last week with the Supreme Court saying the case over the state's congressional districts should be sent back to the lower court to further address questions raised in the Wisconsin case.

But attorneys for the challengers argued that no further hearings were necessary, that voters in each of the 13 congressional districts could and had shown harm.

(c)2018 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)