A federal court signaled Thursday that General Assembly Republicans’ gambit to create race-neutral legislative districts may backfire.

A three-judge panel in North Carolina’s U.S. Middle District Court ordered both sides in the Covington v. North Carolina lawsuit to speed a potential resolution, redrawing 19 House and nine Senate seats that unconstitutionally relied too heavily on race. The Republican-controlled General Assembly redrew the maps saying they used no racial considerations.

“In order to avoid delay should the court decide that some or all of the plaintiffs’ objections should be sustained, the parties are directed to confer and to submit the names of at least three persons the parties agree are qualified to serve as a special master” to redraw the maps, the order states.

The judges also could redraw the maps themselves by picking their own mapmaker if the sides can’t agree on a slate of candidates for special master.

The judges raised that prospect in earlier court hearings.

“It is highly unusual that they would take that step,” David McLennan, political science professor at Meredith College, said of the judges’ order. “It does bode poorly for the Republicans.”

If the three-judge panel ordered another body to redraw the maps, “obviously the maps would not end up looking the same way,” McLennan said.

He offered some empathy for GOP lawmakers because the court returned the case to them without clearly defining a remedy. Additionally, courts are considering so many gerrymandering court cases in North Carolina and across the country that lawmakers have to wonder if anything they do would satisfy judges.

While Republicans said they did not consider race when drawing the maps, the judges were skeptical. If the court ultimately rejects these maps, voters may conclude Republicans are incapable of creating fair maps, said Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University.

“It’s possible that a court-mandated map would ring up more competitive districts, making it likely that the number of seats won by the Republicans would be fewer” in the next election, possibly eliminating their supermajority voting strength, Taylor said.

Although redrawing legislative boundaries is a political process constitutionally delegated to the legislative branch, Taylor said courts have shifted that power to outside entities in the past when deciding that electoral maps violated the Constitution and legislatures were not going to solve the problem.

The three-judge panel held a hearing in late July after the case was returned to it by the U.S. Supreme Court. They ordered the legislature to redo the maps, but rejected pleas by plaintiffs to order a special election this year. Lawmakers held redistricting hearings and got an earful from unhappy constituents (see here and here) before submitting the current plan on Sept. 7.

Eight days later the plaintiffs filed objections, saying some redrawn districts are still racial gerrymanders. They cried foul on other redrawn that were not included in the lawsuit, saying they could not legally be altered between the decennial census. Plaintiffs had asked for a special master to redraw the maps.