News: Quick Takes

Judges strike down N.C. congressional districts as overly partisan

A federal three-judge panel has struck down North Carolina’s latest congressional election map. The judges accepted critics’ argument that the map was overly partisan in favoring Republicans.

The 191-page majority opinion blocks North Carolina from using the current map for any future congressional elections. It orders the General Assembly to approve a new congressional map by Jan. 24. Lawmakers must file their plan with the three-judge panel by Jan. 29. The court order also sets out the judges’ plan to appoint a “special master” to draw an alternative map.

The 2016 congressional map “constitutes a partisan gerrymander in violation of the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and Article I, Sections 2 and 4 of the Constitution,” according to the majority opinion. “Legislative Defendants do not dispute that the General Assembly intended for the 2016 Plan to favor supporters of Republican candidates and disfavor supporters of non-Republican candidates. Nor could they.

“The Republican-controlled North Carolina General Assembly expressly directed the legislators and consultant responsible for drawing the 2016 Plan to rely on ‘political data’ — past election results specifying whether, and to what extent, particular voting districts had favored Republican or Democratic candidates, and therefore were likely to do so in the future — to draw a districting plan that would ensure Republican candidates would prevail in the vast majority of the state’s congressional districts.”

“Legislative Defendants also do not argue — and have never argued — that the 2016 Plan’s intentional disfavoring of supporters of non-Republican candidates advances any democratic, constitutional, or public interest,” the opinion continues. “Nor could they. Neither the Supreme Court nor any lower court has recognized any such interest furthered by partisan gerrymandering — ‘the drawing of legislative district lines to subordinate adherents of one political party and entrench a rival party in power.’

“[P]artisan gerrymandering runs contrary to numerous fundamental democratic principles and individual rights enshrined in the Constitution,” according to the majority opinion.

The judges split on details of the ruling. While all three judges agreed that critics had proven a case against the congressional map, opinion author Judge James Wynn and Judge Earl Britt, both appointed by Democratic presidents, accepted all portions of the majority opinion. Judge William Osteen, appointed by a Republican, rejected some of the critics’ arguments. Osteen also disagreed with the decision to appoint a special master before state lawmakers have had a chance to redraw the rejected map.

The 2016 map struck down in the consolidated cases of Common Cause v. Rucho and League of Women Voters v. Rucho resulted from an earlier court decision that threw out the congressional election map North Carolina used in 2012 and 2014. A separate three-judge panel rejected that earlier map because of concerns about racial gerrymandering.

As lawmakers address this latest ruling on the congressional map, they also await a separate three-judge panel’s latest pronouncement on legislative redistricting. That panel heard arguments Friday in Covington v. North Carolina. The case involves legislative districts thrown out because of concerns about racial gerrymandering.