WASHINGTON ― The Supreme Court on Tuesday granted an emergency petition from Republican legislators in North Carolina, putting the brakes on a special election to cure districts that a federal court determined were racially gerrymandered.
The justices’ move came a day before the new legislature is set to begin its legislative work, and a little over a week after Gov. Roy Cooper (D) took office. Cooper’s team did not return a request for comment on the court’s order.
In November, a three-judge court directed the state’s GOP-controlled General Assembly to redraw 28 state Senate and House districts that it said were designed to dilute the voting power of minorities. But the court let the November election take place under the old maps — on the condition that once the newly elected representatives redrew the maps, a new election would be conducted.
Republican legislators who were elected on Nov. 8 told the Supreme Court that the ruling effectively means their seats would only be good for one year, not two, and that the redrawn maps run the risk of being irrelevant because the justices will soon rule in a pair of cases that should provide further guidelines on how to deal with the use of race in redistricting.
“When the newly elected General Assembly convenes on January 11, 2017,” the Republican legislators told the court, “it should be free to pursue the people’s business, not forced to divert the precious first weeks to drawing maps based on the district court’s idiosyncratic view of redistricting, especially when further guidance from this Court is forthcoming.”
The Supreme Court temporarily agreed on Tuesday to the lawmakers’ request to delay the federal court order to redraw the offending maps and conduct a special election.
The justices’ order didn’t indicate how they voted — the court remains one member short since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia — or the reasons for acceding to the lawmakers’ pleas. The request was initially addressed to Chief Justice John Roberts, who oversees cases from the region that covers North Carolina. It takes the votes of five justices to grant an emergency petition.
Last August, four justices, including Roberts, would’ve allowed the more restrictive parts of North Carolina’s controversial voting law, including its voter ID provision, to go into effect ahead of the November elections. The court ultimately kept the law from being enforced.
In a statement, the legal team representing the North Carolina voters in the case said the high court’s move simply puts things on hold while the justices consider a more formal appeal from Republican lawmakers.
“On behalf of our clients, we continue to trust that the district court’s ruling will be upheld and new districts ultimately will be drawn that are not based on race,” said Anita Earls, the executive director for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
But Richard Hasen, an election law expert who has been following this case and the Supreme Court’s gerrymandering docket closely, doubted Tuesday’s development will allow the special election to proceed at all in 2017.
The high court, in Hasen’s view, simply has too many related disputes left to decide in this field, and thus it’s unlikely to let a lower court decision ordering new maps and a new election be the last word.
This article has been updated with Richard Hasen’s analysis.