The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed itself Friday on whether partisan gerrymandering and a strict voter ID law violate the state Constitution, in a pair rulings with implications far outside the state.
The court — which flipped to GOP control in January — said in February that it would break with tradition and revisit two high-profile voting rights rulings not long after the previous Democratic-controlled court had ruled against the Republican-controlled state Legislature in the cases.
The redistricting ruling sets up North Carolina to return to legislative maps that give Republicans an aggressive edge over Democrats both locally and in the U.S. House. It also offers the U.S. Supreme Court an opportunity to sidestep ruling on a broad legal theory tied to this case.
The North Carolina Supreme Court had previously said partisan gerrymandering violated the state Constitution’s free elections protections, but the new Republican justices said they were wrong to do so.
“Our constitution expressly assigns the redistricting authority to the General Assembly subject to explicit limitations in the text. Those limitations do not address partisan gerrymandering,” they wrote.
They dismissed the case and said the state Legislature can redraw the maps.
Before the new Republican-controlled state Supreme Court weighed in, state Republicans had also asked the U.S. Supreme Court to let them use their gerrymandered maps. There, they argued that only the state legislatures had the power to write election rules, citing a broad legal argument known as the independent state legislature theory.
The Supreme Court took the case, but this ruling offers them an off-ramp of sorts: They could declare the case moot and decline to rule.
On voter ID, the court said the liberal justices had erred when they agreed with a lower court's decision to invalidate the state's 2018 law requiring photo ID at the polls, which the lower court said was discriminatory. They ordered the lower court to dismiss the case with prejudice.
“There is no legal recourse available for vindication of political interests, but this Court is yet again confronted with 'a partisan legislative disagreement that has spilled out . . . into the courts,'” the majority wrote. “This Court once again stands as a bulwark against that spillover, so that even in the most divisive cases, we reassure the public that our state’s courts follow the law, not the political winds of the day.”
Voting rights advocates decried the rulings as politically motivated.
“It’s essentially telling the citizens of North Carolina that they're effectively subject to the whims of the legislature and the courts … aren’t there to help,” said Justin Levitt, a voting rights expert who recently left the White House where he served as senior policy advisor on democracy and voting rights issues.
He said the rulings fundamentally undermined democracy because the gerrymandered maps make it impossible for voters to censure the legislators the court says should have complete control in redistricting.
“This Supreme Court ruling will go down as one of the gravest assaults on democracy ever in North Carolina. Now, extreme partisan gerrymandering has been legalized and it will be weaponized against voters,” Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, said in a release.
Phillips said he expected that the Republican-controlled Legislature might target additional voting rights in the state this year, including same-day voter registration and early voting.
The two reversals on Friday weren't the only voting rights rulings coming out of the top court, which also heard an appeal on felon voting rights and determined that people with felony convictions must complete their sentences — including parole — before they are allowed to vote. A lower court had ruled that people with felony convictions could vote as long as they were not behind bars.