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In a win for Democrats, N.C. Supreme Court strikes down redistricting maps

The 4-3 decision reversed a lower-court ruling and declared the new maps violated the state constitution.
Image: Gerrymandering protest
People gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court during a rally to coincide with hearings on the redistricting cases in Maryland and North Carolina, in Washington, DC., on March 26, 2019.Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images file

RALEIGH, N.C. — A divided North Carolina Supreme Court struck down the state's new maps for congressional and General Assembly seats Friday, declaring that state courts had authority to throw out lines engineered to secure a long-term Republican advantage in an otherwise closely divided state.

By a 4-3 decision — with the justices who are registered Democrats making up the majority — the state's highest court directed the GOP-controlled legislature to redraw the plans by Feb. 18 and provide an explanation of how they calculated the partisan fairness of the new boundaries. Any replacement maps would still be used for the May 17 primaries.

The court's decision reversed a ruling last month from a panel of three trial judges and declared partisan gerrymandering found in the redistricting approved by the legislature in November violated several provisions in the North Carolina Constitution. They include the right to free elections, freedom of speech and equal protections of citizens.

The trial judges had found ample evidence that the legislature approved maps that were “a result of intentional, pro-Republican partisan redistricting.” But they declared it wasn’t the judiciary’s place to intervene in mapmaking — a duty left to the legislature — when partisan fairness in those plans were challenged. They called the redistricting process inherently political and said many of the lawsuits’ claims fall outside the scope of legal redress.

A majority on the Supreme Court disagreed, saying it's the judiciary's obligation to step in to block lines that skew a party's control to the detriment of those with opposing viewpoints. Announced candidates for district seats may have to reconsider their decisions if boundary lines are redrawn.

Friday's ruling is a major victory for state and national Democrats and their allies who had invested greatly in overturning the maps and thwarting Republican gains for the next decade. It could also make it harder for Republicans to retake control of the U.S. House this fall. A group associated with the National Democratic Redistricting Committee — led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder — supported a bloc of voters who sued.

Lawsuits filed by voters and advocacy groups were bolstered by mathematicians and electoral researchers who presented evidence of their analysis of trillions of map simulations. They testified the new lines were likely to give the GOP 10 of the state’s 14 U.S. House seats as well as state House and Senate majorities in almost any political environment. Republicans currently hold an 8-5 seat advantage. The state gets a 14th seat because of population growth reported in the census.

The plaintiffs argued that the enacted maps thwarted the will of the people of North Carolina and the boundaries should produce political outcomes more in line with competitive statewide elections over the past decade.

Republican legislators wanted the trial judges’ ruling to stand, saying a state Supreme Court ruling of the early 2000s said partisan advantage can be considered in mapmaking. They said the redistricting process was transparent and prohibited the use of racial and political data.

Chief Justice Paul Newby, a Republican writing the dissenting opinion, said the court's majority was seeking “to hide its partisan bias" through its decision.

“By choosing to hold that partisan gerrymandering violates the North Carolina Constitution and by devising its own remedies, there appears to be no limit to this court's power,” he wrote.