POLITICS

North Carolina Court Says The State's Districts Are Illegal Partisan Gerrymanders

Activists believe state courts may offer a way to rein in excessive gerrymandering.

North Carolina’s state legislative maps are so severely gerrymandered to benefit Republicans that they violate the state’s Constitution, a panel of three judges ruled Tuesday.

The ruling came in a closely watched case in North Carolina state court. State lawmakers have until Sept. 18 to draw new districts, the court said, and they won’t be allowed to take into account any data about election results.

Lawmakers will also be banned from using the existing maps as a “starting point” as they draw new maps and will be required to draw maps entirely in public view, the court ruled. Any computer screen the lawmakers use, the court said, has to be fully visible to lawmakers and public observers. 

“Extreme partisan gerrymandering does not fairly and truthfully ascertain the will of the people,” the judges wrote. “Voters are not freely choosing their representatives. Rather, representatives are choosing their voters. It is not the will of the people that is fairly ascertained through extreme partisan gerrymandering. Rather, it is the will of the map drawers that prevails.”

The case was decided by three superior court judges: Paul Ridgeway, Joseph Crosswhite and Alma Hinton. The judges noted in the opinion that they are each from different parts of the state and have differing “ideological and political outlooks.”

The case carries implications that go beyond North Carolina. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal courts can’t do anything to stop partisan gerrymandering. But activists believe litigation in state courts could offer a way to challenge partisan gerrymandering ― an idea that Tuesday’s ruling seems to bear out.

North Carolina Republicans controlled the redistricting process in the state in 2011 and drew congressional and state legislative district lines that significantly benefited GOP lawmakers. Republicans were consistently able to win more than 60% of the seats in both of the state’s legislative chambers despite winning only about half of the statewide vote. They enjoyed that veto-proof majority until 2018, when Democrats broke it.

The case, Common Cause v. Lewis, was brought on behalf of the advocacy group Common Cause, the North Carolina Democratic Party and a handful of Democratic voters throughout the state. 

Voters are not freely choosing their representatives. Rather, representatives are choosing their voters. state Superior Court three-judge panel

In its 357-page opinion, the three-judge panel said the districts were so gerrymandered that they violated three provisions in the North Carolina Constitution. One of those measures simply says that “all elections shall be free.” Partisan gerrymandering, the panel wrote, works by diluting the votes of some citizens compared with others. 

“Redistricting plans that entrench politicians in power, that evince
a fundamental distrust of voters by serving the self-interest of political parties over the public good, and that dilute and devalue votes of some citizens compared to others — is contrary to the fundamental right of North Carolina citizens to have elections conducted freely and honestly to ascertain, fairly and truthfully, the will of the people,” they wrote.

The excessive gerrymandering also violates the North Carolina Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection under the law and free speech and assembly. The court also found that the maps were designed to intentionally discriminate against Democrats and there was no other legitimate explanation for the boundaries other than partisan advantage.  

Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger (R) said in a statement Tuesday that lawmakers would not appeal the ruling and would “move forward with adoption of a nonpartisan map.” 

“We disagree with the court’s ruling as it contradicts the Constitution and binding legal precedent, but we intend to respect the court’s decision and finally put this divisive battle behind us,” he said in a statement. “Nearly a decade of relentless litigation has strained the legitimacy of the state’s institutions, and the relationship between its leaders, to the breaking point. It’s time to move on.”

A spokesman for House Speaker Tim Moore (R) said he was still reviewing the ruling.

If lawmakers appeal, the case will likely be ultimately decided by the North Carolina Supreme Court. Democrats hold a 6-1 majority on that panel. 

The plaintiffs in the case were aided by an explosive discovery from the files of Thomas Hofeller, a noted Republican redistricting expert who died last summer. Hofeller’s daughter turned over her late father’s computer drives to Common Cause, and they contained formulas and other clear evidence of how Hofeller sought to maximize partisan gain as he drew districts. The three-judge panel pointed repeatedly to Hofeller’s files in its Tuesday ruling to show that Republicans were motivated by maximizing partisan advantage as they drew districts.

“The evidence establishes that Dr. Hofeller drew the 2017 Plans very precisely to create as many “safe” Republican districts as possible, so that Republicans would maintain their supermajorities, or at least majorities even in a strong election year for Democrats,” the panel wrote. 

The North Carolina judges also suggested that lawmakers had misrepresented the timeline under which they redrew the state’s electoral maps in 2017. Though lawyers told a federal court they weren’t drafting maps as late as Aug. 4, 2017, Hofeller had already substantially completed his work by late June, the panel said. 

The ruling comes more than a year and a half after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled the state’s congressional districts violated the Pennsylvania Constitution. 

In June, the United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that federal courts were powerless to limit excessive partisan gerrymandering. But Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, noted there was nothing to stop state courts from acting.

“Provisions in state statutes and state constitutions can provide standards and guidance for state courts to apply,” Roberts wrote. 

Writing in dissent, Justice Elena Kagan, however, said that the fact that state courts could act was evidence that federal courts could act, too.

“What do those courts know that this Court does not?” she wrote. “If they can develop and apply neutral and manageable standards to identify
unconstitutional gerrymanders, why couldn’t we?” 

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