North Carolina can’t catch a break at the Supreme Court.
The court on Monday upheld a lower court ruling that invalidated 28 state legislative districts because they were “racially gerrymandered” — drawn by the Republican-controlled legislature with the objective of disadvantaging black voters.
The justices offered no reasoning alongside their decision, and simply affirmed the ruling in a one-line order. But a three-judge panel of federal judges last year explained why such map-drawing by North Carolina lawmakers was unconstitutional.
“When a legislature relies on race as the predominant factor in drawing district lines ... it reinforces the perception that members of the same racial group — regardless of their age, education, economic status, or the community in which they live — think alike, share the same political interests, and will prefer the same candidates at the polls,” the judges wrote.
As a result of that ruling, the same judges left the state legislative maps — nine for the state Senate, 19 for the state House of Representatives — in place for the November election.
The court later ordered the state General Assembly to come up with new state legislative maps and to hold a special election in 2017, with anyone elected before and after that election to serve a one-year term. That forced newly elected lawmakers to urge the Supreme Court to put the ordered redistricting and special election on hold while they filed a broader appeal.
The justices on Monday rejected that appeal and affirmed the lower court’s decision that found the legislative districts violated the Constitution. Notably, the Supreme Court, in a related ruling, scrapped the special election order and the related remedies.
Instead, the justices told the lower court to go back to the drawing board and use the proper analysis for deciding how to best cure the racially drawn districts — which may or may not include a new round of elections later this year.
“Although this Court has never addressed whether or when a special election may be a proper remedy for a racial gerrymander,” the Supreme Court wrote in an unsigned ruling, “obvious considerations include the severity and nature of the particular constitutional violation, the extent of the likely disruption to the ordinary processes of governance if early elections are imposed, and the need to act with proper judicial restraint when intruding on state sovereignty.”
Despite this ruling, which will invite more litigation, the governor of North Carolina and voting-rights advocates viewed the court’s pronouncement in a favorable light, and vowed to keep fighting.
“Whether the election is November 2018 or earlier, redrawing the districts is good for our democracy by leveling the playing field for free and fair elections,” Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, said in a statement. “The people should be able to choose their representatives in competitive districts instead of the representatives being able to choose the people in lopsided, partisan districts.”
“We think there is still time to implement special elections in the impacted districts, and we will do everything we can to make sure that happens,” Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which represents the plaintiffs in this challenge, said in a statement. “Many North Carolinians have been participating in unfair elections in racially gerrymandered districts for far too long. It’s time to fix this problem.”
In a separate case last month that touched on similar issues, the Supreme Court threw out a pair of congressional districts because North Carolina lawmakers impermissibly relied on race as the predominant factor when creating them following the 2010 census. The high court also declined a bid by the legislature to revive a broad swath of voting restrictions, which an appeals court likened to Jim Crow-era laws.
In the decision explaining the need for special elections for the 28 state legislative districts that were no longer valid, the three judges wrote that the logistical complications of conducting a new election is outweighed by the harm of discriminating on the basis of race.
“While special elections have costs, those costs pale in comparison to the injury caused by allowing citizens to continue to be represented by legislators elected pursuant to a racial gerrymander,” the judges wrote.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder, who is part of a Democratic coalition bent on challenging race-based redistricting, said in a statement Monday that the Supreme Court’s latest ruling should put legislators on notice about how they shape district lines.
The decision “will mean fairer state legislative districts that better represent North Carolina’s diverse communities,” Holder said. “It sends a clear message that racial gerrymandering will be overturned by the highest court in the land, whether it happens at the federal or state level.”
This article has been updated to include Holder’s statement.