A three-judge panel ruled Monday that North Carolina’s congressional districts amount to an unconstitutional gerrymander, siding with plaintiffs Common Cause and the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, marking the latest federal ruling against the Republican-controlled legislature’s drawing of the state’s congressional districts first along racial and then partisan lines. In January, the panel determined the gerrymandering amounted to a violation of the Constitution’s equal-protection clause and ordered the state to redraw the entire map before the midterm elections, the first time in American history a court demanded the total overhaul of a state-drawn electoral map. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, quickly intervened blocking the lower court ruling, ordering it to wait to reconsider the case until a similar case before the highest court was decided, making it seemingly impossible for the districts to be redrawn more fairly before the November election.
Once the Supreme Court had cleared the way, the judges for the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, in their ruling, indicted an openness to taking extraordinary measures to ensuring fair elections in the state, as soon as November, despite the fact that the primaries have already concluded. “(I)t may be possible for the State to conduct a general election using a constitutionally compliant districting plan without holding a primary election. Or, it may be viable for the State to conduct a primary election on November 6, 2018, using a constitutionally compliant congressional districting plan, and then conduct a general election sometime before the new Congress is seated in January 2019.” the panel wrote.
The statehouse Republican in charge of redistricting, Rep. David Lewis, justified the map after its creation, saying: “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats. So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country.” During a hearing on the new maps, Rep. Lewis “said the districts were drawn to give Republicans 10 seats and Democrats three seats because they couldn’t figure out a way to draw an 11-2 map,” according to the News and Observer. “It worked: Republicans won 10 seats in November 2016, and Democrats won three.” The extreme congressional tilt towards the GOP runs counter to the state’s politics that are trending more Democratic, making it a tossup at the presidential level, with Obama winning the state in 2008 before losing it to Mitt Romney in 2012; Trump narrowly edged Hillary Clinton in 2016. Both of the state’s senators are Republicans, but the two highest statewide offices, the governor and state attorney general, are both Democrats.
“The ruling sets up a delicate tactical question for the Supreme Court, which has never ruled a partisan gerrymander to be unconstitutional, passing up three separate opportunities to do so in its last term,” the New York Times reports. “With the retirement of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the court is now divided between four conservatives who have expressed skepticism about the court’s ability to tinker with political maps, and four more liberal justices who have argued that it has that ability. Five justices must vote to hear a case, meaning that a 4-4 vote would leave the lower court’s ruling intact.”