U.S. top court blocks urgent redrawing of North Carolina voting districts

SCOTUS reaffirms lower court ruling that legislative maps were racially "gerrymandered"

The United States Supreme Court.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday reaffirmed a lower court’s ruling that N.C. Republicans mapped state legislative districts in a way that diluted the clout of black voters, but threw out a separate decision telling the state to urgently redraw them. The high court, with no recorded dissents, leaves in place an August 2016 ruling by a 3-judge federal court panel that districts were racial “gerrymandered,” with boundaries drawn to diminish the voting power of minorities, and violated the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. The lower court found that the Republican-led state legislature had crammed black voters into a limited number of districts in order to lessen their statewide electoral power.”The Court has once again told North Carolina what I have long known to be true – that its history in making voting decisions is discriminatory,” said U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield (NC-01) on Monday. “The General Assembly must fairly redraw legislative boundaries to protect the interests of minority voters.”At issue are nine state Senate districts and 19 state House districts, as carved out in a plan adopted by the legislature in 2011. The lower court went as far as calling one House District, “bizarre and sprawling.””The people should be able to choose their representatives in competitive districts instead of the representatives being able to choose the people in lopsided, partisan districts,” said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) in a statement.Packing minorities into a limited number of legislative districts would reduce their influence in electing a larger number of lawmakers, increasing the sway of white voters.However, conservatives insist that they never used race as a criteria while drawing the maps, and have voiced concerns about judicial activism playing too large of a role in North Carolina politics in recent years. “The high court’s rejection of such a cursory opinion, which was at odds with judicial restraint, only begins to echo the concern I have with the nature of the continued politicization of the judiciary,” said head mapmaker Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett). Pointing to the Supreme Court’s opinion, Lewis emphasized that the District Court “failed to meaningfully weigh equitable considerations, didn’t take into account what would be a workable solution, failed to act with proper judicial restraint, and penned an opinion that was clearly at odds with the court’s demand for careful analysis.”The Supreme Court sent the case back to the same court that in late November had ordered N.C. to conduct a new round of elections this year for the 28 problem seats. The Supreme Court in January put that ruling on hold while it decided whether to hear the state’s appeal.On Monday, the justices outlined a number of legal issues that should have been addressed prior to mandating a special election. “We cannot have confidence that the court adequately grappled with” the ramifications of a special election, read the opinion.The November ruling required state lawmakers to redraw maps by March 2017 and hold a special election by the end of the year. Lawmakers argued, among other things, that the ruling overlooked the state’s constitutional requirement that legislators are to serve two-year terms. A special election this fall would result in a one-year term.”We are encouraged the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the lower court’s politically-motivated attempt to force a special legislative election in 2017 and its efforts to ‘suspend provisions of the North Carolina Constitution,’ ignore voters’ constitutional right to elect representatives to two-year terms, and effectively nullify their votes from 2016,” Lewis also said in a joint statement with Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell) on Monday.Monday’s decision ultimately gives the lower court the final say, with some officials still calling for an emergency special election.”The people of North Carolina should not be required to wait until 2018 to live in a constitutionally drawn district and be represented by a legislator who is lawfully elected,” said Butterfield, who represents a deep blue district that stretches from south Durham, along the Virginia border, ending in the northeast inner-coastal. “The legislative elections should take place in the fall of 2017.”Legal experts say it is highly unlikely that the lower court will decide to move forward with elections this year or rule on the timeline at all before the end of the fiscal year. “Whether the election is November 2018 or earlier, redrawing the districts is good for our democracy by leveling the playing field for free and fair elections,” said Gov. Cooper.Regardless, new legislative maps will only stand for the 2018 and 2020 election cycles. The state is required to redraw state and federal district lines after every Census, meaning that lawmakers will need to return to mapmaking in 2021. The process is likely to mirror, in part, the actions taken by legislators while redrawing congressional maps in February 2016: forming a Joint Select Committee to draw and review maps and criteria, and hosting public hearings across the state. Whether the General Assembly can conduct this business during a regular session or need to call a special session will largely depend on the timeline the District Court mandates.The Supreme Court’s action on Monday marks its latest foray into N.C. voting rights cases.The justices on May 22 ruled that N.C. Republicans unlawfully took race into consideration when drawing two majority-black U.S. House of Representatives districts, concentrating black voters in an improper bid to hold down their statewide influence.On May 15, the justices rebuffed a Republican bid to revive the North Carolina voter-identification law that a lower court argued discriminated against black voters. The law required that all voters present a valid ID at the voting booth or sign an affidavit that they are who they say they are. Democrats have accused Republicans over the years of taking a variety of steps at the state level to disenfranchise black and other minority voters, who tend to back Democratic candidates. Republicans have consistently defended their actions, saying their voter ID laws help combat voter fraud, and that redistricting tactics have taken advantage of partisan but not racial lines.Updated at 9:45pmReuters News Service contributed to this article.