U.S. Supreme Court tosses N.C.s voting districts

Dissenting opinion says precedents in the case were disregarded

Carlos Barria—Reuters
A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled that Republicans in North Carolina unlawfully took race too much into consideration when drawing congressional district boundaries, concentrating black voters and diminishing their overall political clout.The justices upheld a lower court’s February 2016 ruling that threw out two majority-black U.S. House of Representatives districts. The court was unanimous in rejecting District 1 and split 5-3 on District 12, with three conservatives dissenting. Justice Clarence Thomas sided with the more liberal Justices Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.”Although states enjoy leeway to take race-based actions reasonably judged necessary under a proper interpretation of the Voting Rights Act, that latitude cannot rescue District 1,” Kagan said in the opinion of the court.”We by no means ‘insist that a state legislature, when redistricting, determine precisely what percent minority population demands.’ But neither will we approve a racial gerrymander whose necessity is supported by no evidence and whose raison d’être is a legal mistake,” she added.Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Anthony Kennedy, and Justice Samuel Alito dissented, agreeing with state officials that the districts lines were not racially motivated but rather to benefit Republicans, something that the court has never said lawmakers could not do. Alito, in the dissenting opinion, said the challengers did not prove lines weren’t part of a partisan strategy. He also pointed out that the court disregarded a precedent set in 2001 in a similar case challenging the constitutionality of District 12. In that case the challengers lost because they did not produce an alternative map. One was not produced in this case either.”A precedent of this court should not be treated like a disposable household item — say, a paper plate or napkin— to be used once and then tossed in the trash,” Alito wrote. “But that is what the court does today in its decision regarding North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District: The court junks a rule adopted in a prior, remarkably similar challenge to this very same congressional district.”While the districts have already been redrawn, Amy Auth, a spokeswoman for Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham), said Monday that the uncertainty in the court’s decisions on this case have made redistricting difficult. “We have the utmost respect for the Supreme Court, but it is challenging for our lawmakers to draw congressional districts that the courts will accept when the courts regularly change the rules state legislatures must follow when drawing them,” she said in a release.Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, lauded the decision on Twitter.”North Carolina voters deserve a level playing field and fair elections and I’m glad the Supreme Court agrees,” said Cooper in a statement released Monday. “The North Carolina Republican legislature tried to rig congressional elections by drawing unconstitutional districts that discriminated against African-Americans and that’s wrong.”Critics accused Republicans of cramming black voters into what the NAACP civil rights group called “apartheid voting districts” to diminish their voting power and make surrounding districts more white and more likely to support Republicans. Both districts are held by the Democrats. Rep. G.K. Butterfield represents the 1st District, while Rep. Alma Adams represents the 12th District.However race can be considered in redrawing boundaries of voting districts in certain instances, such as when states are seeking to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act. That law protects minority voters and was enacted to address a history of racial discrimination in voting, especially in Southern states. Republican lawmakers have repeatedly argued from the beginning that District 12 was drawn to comply with the Voting Rights Act. They redrew the maps in 2016.”North Carolina’s congressional maps — despite being approved by President [Barack] Obama’s Justice Department — have already been redrawn and voted in to elect new federal representatives statewide,” said N.C. House Rules Chairman David Lewis (R-Harnett) in a statement Monday.”While we prefer consistent rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court over the shifting legal positions criticized by Justice Alito in his dissent, we are satisfied today’s decision brings certainty to North Carolina voters that the current congressional districts (drawn in 2016) will remain in place for upcoming elections,” Lewis added.The Supreme Court has also never said legislative districts cannot be mapped based on plainly partisan aims like maximizing one party’s election chances. Now legal analysts say that the decision has thrown the door wide open for more lawsuits of partisan congressional district lines. “Partisan gerrymandering is always unsavory, but that is not the issue here,” Alito wrote. “So long as the legislature chose to retain the basic shape of District 12 and to increase the number of Democrats in the district, it was inevitable that the Democrats brought in would be disproportionately black.””I don’t know how any legislature can perform this task (redistricting) when the rules change constantly from case to case, often after the fact,” said Robin Hayes, chairman of the N.C. Republican Party.One case from Wisconsin is already making its way to the court and may provide the opportunity for the justices to weigh in on the constitutionality of drawing districts for partisan advantage.Justice Neil Gorsuch, who had not yet joined the court when arguments in the case were heard, did not participate in the ruling.