The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a lower court’s ruling striking down 28 North Carolina legislative districts as cases of unconstitutional racial gerrymandering. But the high court has rejected the idea of holding special legislative elections this year.
The Supreme Court had issued a stay on Jan. 10 blocking a three-judge panel’s order of a special election. Today’s unsigned Supreme Court order chides the trial-court panel for ordering a special 2017 legislative election without making a convincing argument why that remedy is needed.
Justices say their trial-court colleagues should have used an “equitable weighing process” to determine the proper remedy for dealing with the racially gerrymandered election maps. “Rather than undertaking such an analysis in this case, the District Court addressed the balance of equities in only the most cursory fashion,” the Supreme Court order states. “As noted above, the court simply announced that ‘[w]hile special elections have costs,’ those unspecified costs ‘pale in comparison’ to the prospect that citizens will be ‘represented by legislators elected pursuant to a racial gerrymander.’
“That minimal reasoning would appear to justify a special election in every racial-gerrymandering case — a result clearly at odds with our demand for careful case-specific analysis,” the order continues. “For that reason, we cannot have confidence that the court adequately grappled with the interests on both sides of the remedial question before us.”
“And because the District Court’s discretion ‘was barely exercised here,’ its order provides no meaningful basis for even deferential review,” according to the Supreme Court.
Gov. Roy Cooper responded to the ruling with an official statement. “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,” the statement reads. “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.”
The primary legislators handling redistricting issues produced a joint statement supporting the decision.
“We are encouraged the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the lower court’s politically motivated attempt to force a special legislative election in 2017 and its efforts to ‘suspend provisions of the North Carolina Constitution,’ ignore voters’ constitutional right to elect representatives to two-year terms, and effectively nullify their votes from 2016,” said Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, and Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett.
Today’s order represents the third action from the U.S. Supreme Court on N.C. redistricting cases in the past three weeks. After striking down two congressional districts used in 2012 and 2014 in Cooper v. Harris, the high court sent the Dickson v. Rucho case back to the N.C. Supreme Court for a third time. That case deals with both congressional and legislative redistricting.
The high court could act at least once more in the not-too-distant future on N.C. redistricting. The parties involved in Cooper v. Harris have been asked to submit briefs by Tuesday in Harris v. Cooper, which challenges the 2016 congressional election maps drawn to comply with an earlier court order throwing out the maps last used in 2014.