Supreme Court upholds redraw of some NC legislative districts

June 28, 2018 GMT

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that having an outside expert draw voting district maps for the General Assembly fixed racial gerrymanders in a few House and Senate districts but was unnecessary in Wake and Mecklenburg counties, where no such problems existed.

The 10-page unsigned opinion basically maintains the status quo for the next few years, after the high court ruled in February that the new maps would be used in the 2018 elections.

Justice Clarence Thomas issued a three-sentence dissent, saying the court should have heard the case.

“I do not think the complicated factual and legal issues in this case should be disposed of summarily. I would have set this case for briefing and oral argument. I respectfully dissent,” Thomas wrote.

The decision ends a long-running battle over legislative districts that have twice been thrown out by federal courts because of racial gerrymandering. After continued challenges to a handful of House and Senate districts, a panel of three judges last fall brought in a Stanford University law professor to come up with alternative maps.

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“The order from the Supreme Court today sends the message loud and clear that discrimination, even if hidden under a self-proclaimed veil of ignorance, will not be tolerated in the redistricting process. We’re glad to see the district court’s careful, well-documented findings on this front affirmed,” Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which represented plaintiffs in the case, said in a statement. “While it’s unfortunate that this process has dragged on for almost the entirety of the decade – to the great detriment of voters in this state – we’re gratified to be vindicated once again.”

The Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision to use the independent maps to solve racial gerrymandered in Senate District 21 (Hoke and Cumberland counties), Senate District 28 (Guilford County), House District 21 (Wayne and Sampson counties) and House District 57 (Guilford County).

″[T]he District Court had its own duty to cure illegally gerrymandered districts through an orderly process in advance of elections,” the court ruled. “We conclude that the District Court’s appointment of a Special Master in this case was not an abuse of discretion. Neither was the District Court’s decision to adopt the Special Master’s recommended remedy for the racially gerrymandered districts.”

But the redrawn maps also included legislative districts in Wake and Mecklenburg counties, which plaintiffs challenged on constitutional grounds. They argued that lawmakers didn’t have to redraw those districts to fix racial gerrymanders elsewhere, but that they did so anyway, violating the North Carolina constitution’s prohibition against mid-decade redistricting.

Redistricting is done once every 10 years, following the U.S. census, and can be done more often only under the power of a court order.

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The Supreme Court ruled that the three-judge panel “proceeded from a mistaken view of its adjudicative role” when it used the map drawn by the Stanford professor instead of the one lawmakers drew last year for districts that weren’t gerrymandered.

“The only injuries the plaintiffs established in this case were that they had been placed in their legislative districts on the basis of race. The District Court’s remedial authority was accordingly limited to ensuring that the plaintiffs were relieved of the burden of voting in racially gerrymandered legislative districts,” the court found.

Lawmakers were free to change the entire legislative map once the panel said some gerrymandered districts needed to be fixed, the high court ruled, adding that not allowing them that freedom in Wake and Mecklenburg counties “was clear error.”

“The people of North Carolina finally have assurance that the districts used in the 2018 primary will be used in the 2018 general election. We hope this stops the plaintiffs’ continued gamesmanship and overtly political litigation,” said Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, one of the chief mapmakers in the General Assembly.