U.S. Supreme Court sends maps back to NC high court

Final outcome could spark new maps, early elections

State Senators Dan Soucek

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday issued a order to the N.C. Supreme Court to reconsider its earlier decision approving the state’s voting district maps. The nation’s high court acted on a petition for review filed by former state Sen. Margaret Dickson, a Democrat. The 2011 suit challenges 25 state legislative districts and three Congressional districts in N.C.The order tells the N.C. Supreme Court to consider the constitutionality of the districts for a third time, this time in light of a U.S. Supreme Court decision issued last week, Cooper v. Harris, saying that the state relied too heavily on race in drawing the Congressional maps (which are no longer in use) and rejected them. The state’s highest court upheld the 2011 Congressional district maps twice already, most recently in 2015, saying that they were drawn to comply with the Voting Rights Act and were therefore constitutional.However according to constitutional lawyers it is too soon to tell what Tuesday’s order could mean to N.C. because another critical case is still pending. The U.S. Supreme Court has not yet issued a decision on the state legislature’s appeal of a 2016 decision from a panel of federal judges who found the district maps unconstitutional. That decision, paired with last week’s Cooper v. Harris decision, will have the biggest impact.Tuesday’s ruling is significant for sure, but it’s too soon to know,” said John Wester, an attorney with Robinson Bradshaw in Charlotte. “The combination of the Supreme Court’s decision in the 2016 appeal and the May 22 ruling is going to give citizens, legislators, and the courts the clearest direction to date for drawing legislative districts that will pass constitutional muster.”The Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which represents plaintiffs in the case, took it as a victory.”In light of Cooper v. Harris, our clients are hopeful that the N.C. Supreme Court will follow federal law and recognize these districts for what they are: unconstitutional racial gerrymanders,” said Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, following the order. “The North Carolina Supreme Court should take action swiftly to require the immediate implementation of fair districts for all North Carolina voters.”Another element at play is that the N.C. Supreme Court has flipped ideological balance since the 2015 decision. In November’s election, Judge Mike Morgan beat incumbent Justice Bob Edmunds for a seat on the court. Edmunds was a conservative and Morgan is thought to be more liberal.Dickson’s was one of several lawsuits challenging the maps based on the placement of Districts 1 and 12 for U.S. Congress, saying that they packed African-American voters into the two districts to minimize their political influence. However those districts were largely drawn by Democrats in 2010. When Republicans won a veto-proof majority in 2011 they faced the responsibility of redrawing the maps as is done every 10 years with new census data.However, for N.C. and several other Southern states at that time, the maps had to be cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice. North Carolina’s maps received “preclearance” from the Obama Justice Department, which said they met the requirements of the Voting Right Act. In 2013, that clearance requirement was removed.