WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) recently heard arguments regarding the fairness of legislative districts that a three-judge district court panel had held to be unconstitutionally gerrymandered. The previous court’s decision ordered North Carolina legislators to redraw the district maps and hold special elections in 2017. On Jan. 10, the SCOTUS granted GOP legislators a stay on the lower court’s order.
SCOTUS justices have only granted a temporary stay while they decide whether to take up Republican legislators’ appeal of the panel’s earlier decision. The panel ruled that the districts were unconstitutional and had been drawn with the purpose of minimizing minority political influence. On Jan. 19, SCOTUS justices met in private to discuss the case, but left with no pronouncement on whether the court would take up the case.
If the Supreme Court accepts the gerrymandering case, it may set the precedent for racial gerrymandering cases nationwide. If they decline to take up the torch, the lower court panel’s decision will be the final word.
“North Carolinians deserve fair representation in the state legislature, and that is impossible to achieve with racially gerrymandered districts,” said Southern Coalition for Social Justice Executive Director Anita Earls, representing the plaintiffs in the case. “A special election in the affected districts in 2017 is the best way to protect the rights of all North Carolinians.”
The GOP, on the other hand, argues that the rules for drawing districts are unclear. The federal government holds that districts must have equal population, as well as protect the influence of racial or ethnic minorities, under the Voting Rights Act. Republicans argue that the extent to which race must be factored into district mapping is unclear.
“Racial gerrymandering doctrine is substantially complicated by the reality that the Voting Rights Act has been interpreted to sometimes require states to prioritize race when drawing its districts,” wrote lawyers representing the state legislature in a brief for the court.
“We continue to believe the maps drawn by the General Assembly, pre-cleared by the Obama Justice Department and twice upheld by our state’s elected Supreme Court are constitutional, and we will move quickly to appeal,” read a joint statement by Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) and Sen. Bob Rucho (R-Mecklenburg).
Democratic politicians argue that the minority-packed state districts minimize the influence of those voters, leading to the supermajority that Republicans enjoy in both houses of the state legislature. GOP legislators themselves have admitted that their gerrymandering targeted party victory, but deny that race was the primary factor.
North Carolina Democratic Party Chairwoman Patsy Keever supports redrawing the districts.
“I am confident that when the U.S. Supreme Court considers this case later this month they will uphold the decision of the lower courts, which found a clear pattern of racial discrimination in the gerrymandered districts drawn by Republican legislators in Raleigh,” Keever said in a statement. “Representative Moore and Senator Berger’s continued opposition to legislative districts that fairly represent all North Carolinians speaks volumes to how far they will go to protect their political power.”
Keever’s confidence has not yet found fruition, but the Supreme Court continues to consider whether to take the case. On a local level, a poll by the North Carolina Democratic Party found that 59 percent of N.C. voters support nonpartisan redistricting, and only 15 percent are opposed to drawing districts in an objective fashion. Independents, Democrats, and Republicans all favor non partisan redistricting, according to the poll.