Federal court rejects NC’s congressional maps

Three-judge panel gives lawmakers until 5 p.m. on January 24 to present new maps.

Reps. Michael Speciale, left, and Pat McElraft, right, look over a redistricting map on the floor of the North Carolina House at the Legislative Building in Raleigh on Aug. 28, 2017. (Eamon Queeney / North State Journal)

RALEIGH — On Tuesday evening, a three-judge panel voided the Republican-drawn congressional district map passed in August. The judges said that Republicans drew the maps to intentionally give them an advantage for GOP “domination of the state’s congressional delegation.” This the first time a congressional map has been rejected by courts based on an advantage to one party over another.

The three-judge panel, consisting of two Democrat-appointed judges and one Republican-appointed, gave Republican lawmakers until 5 p.m. on Jan. 24 to come up with a new map. The ruling was on a case brought against state lawmakers by Common Cause and the League of Women Voters.

Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the N.C. Republican Party, responded by calling the 4th Circuit’s actions a politically motivated effort to throw the state into chaos.

“The 2017 Congressional Map kept 87 of NC’s 100 counties whole and divides only 12 precincts to achieve one person one vote,” he tweeted Tuesday night.

“Once again, unaccountable federal judges are attempting to throw North Carolina’s elections into chaos by adopting radical, untested new theories at the eleventh hour. This must be appealed,” he added in another tweet.

Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell), N.C.’s state Senate redistricting chairman, said through a spokeswoman that lawmakers would appeal. An appeal could end up on the U.S. Supreme Court’s docket. Justices on the high court are already hearing a partisan gerrymandering case from Wisconsin in which a lower court rejected their state legislative maps.

The Supreme Court has been willing to invalidate state electoral maps on the grounds of racial gerrymandering, as it did last May when it found that Republican legislators in had drawn two electoral districts to diminish the statewide political clout of black voters. But the justices have not thrown out state electoral maps drawn simply to give one party an advantage over another.

Republicans in North Carolina could decide to seek a stay of the ruling until the Supreme Court decides the Wisconsin case, said Virginia Tech political scientist Nicholas Goedert.

Judge James A. Wynn, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009, wrote in his opinion that lawmakers violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment by drawing maps that would put those who’d voted for Democrats in the past at a disadvantage in electing Democrats to Congress. He also detailed decades of legal wrangling over Democrat-led legislatures’ partisan gerrymandering.

“That partisan gerrymandering encroaches on these individual rights by undermining the right to vote — the principle (sic) vehicle through which the public secures other rights and prevents government overreach—magnifies the constitutional harm,” he wrote.

Judge William L. Osteen Jr., appointed by President George W. Bush, said he agreed that the maps were an example of partisan gerrymandering, but disagreed that the plaintiffs proved that their rights have been violated by the maps.

“I would not find the Constitution provides additional protection to the voting strength of members of a political party or group so as to prohibit partisan considerations in redistricting,” he wrote.

The decision came the night before the N.C. General Assembly gavels in at noon on Wednesday for the short legislative session.