By Anne Blythe

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday threw out a North Carolina Supreme Court ruling that had upheld the state's Republican-drawn legislative and congressional districts.

The nation's highest court ordered the state's highest court to reconsider whether legislators relied too heavily on race when drawing the 2011 maps, which shape how state and federal elections are decided.

In an order released Monday, the U.S. justices ordered North Carolina's highest court to reconsider the 2011 maps in light of a recent decision the court made in a similar Alabama case.

The North Carolina case is Dickson v. Rucho. Dickson is former state Rep. Margaret Dickson, who said in a statement Monday that North Carolinians "deserve to have this resolved so that they can benefit from fair and legal maps for the 2016 elections."

"We have always known that the current maps were unconstitutional and are gratified that the Supreme Court of the United States has now set in motion a way forward for final disposition of this long-running and wrongly-decided case," she said in the statement.

Attorneys for Dickson asked the N.C. Supreme Court shortly after the ruling to quickly schedule a hearing on the matter.

Monday's decision was set in motion in March, when the U.S. justices issued a divided ruling in the Alabama case, saying the court there must take another look at whether Alabama's Republican-led legislature relied too heavily on race when it redrew the state's voting districts in a way that black leaders say limited minority voting power.

In that case, the justices split 5-4 across ideological lines in ruling that a three-judge panel had not properly considered complaints that state officials illegally packed black voters into too few voting districts.

Writing for the court, Justice Stephen Breyer said the lower court should have reviewed claims of racial gerrymandering on a district-by-district level, not just statewide. He also said the court didn't apply the right test when it found that race wasn't the primary motivating factor.

Breyer said both the district court and the state legislature relied too much on a "mechanically numerical" view of whether the new plan reduced minority voting strength. Instead of asking how it could maintain the minority percentages in districts, the court should have asked what percentages the minority should have to elect their candidate of choice.

"Asking the wrong question may well have led to the wrong answer," Breyer said.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, often a swing vote, joined the court's four liberals in the majority, including justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

North Carolina attorneys and voting rights advocates who have challenged the new legislative and congressional districts approved by the N.C. General Assembly in 2011 watched the Alabama case with great interest.

Anita Earls, executive director for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, has said that she and other challengers of the North Carolina maps think they have a stronger case, in many ways, than the Alabama case.

"The decision in the Alabama case makes clear that the Voting Rights Act does not require, and the Constitution does not permit, the use of mechanical racial targets in redistricting, as was done in North Carolina," Earls said.

Though Earls and other challengers contend the North Carolina maps drawn after the U.S. Census in 2010 were gerrymanders designed to weaken the voting power of African-American and Latino voters, the districts have been upheld by a three-judge panel and the N.C. Supreme Court.

But now the N.C. justices will have to take another look at the case, focusing on the questions and issues raised by the U.S. justices.

Rep. David Lewis, a Republican from Harnett County, and Sen. Bob Rucho, a Republican from Mecklenburg County, chairmen of the legislative redistricting committees that led the map drawing, speculated that the N.C. Supreme Court would come to the same conclusion it did in December, when upholding the unanimous ruling of the three-judge panel that heard the case in N.C. Superior Court.

"Since 2011, every court that has issued an opinion and the Obama Justice Department has reached the same conclusion -- North Carolina's redistricting maps are constitutional," Lewis and Rucho said in a joint statement on Monday. "Today's procedural ruling is not unexpected and we are confident that our state Supreme Court will once again arrive at the same result and the U.S. Supreme Court will affirm its decision."

In March, Phil Berger, the state Senate leader, and Tim Moore, the N.C. House speaker, said in a joint statement that they had not expected the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Alabama case to have an impact on North Carolina.

"The Alabama and North Carolina redistricting cases involve different questions of law, and legislative leaders do not believe today's Supreme Court decision impacts the North Carolina case," they said at the time.

Like other states, the North Carolina General Assembly had to redraw political boundaries to reflect population shifts in the 2010 Census. The process can often lead to accusations of gerrymandering -- the manipulation of district boundaries to gain a partisan advantage.

Republicans, new to power then, point out that districts in counties where "pre-clearance" was necessary were pre-approved by the U.S. Justice Department.

(c)2015 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)