A panel of three federal judges in North Carolina struck down North Carolina’s congressional map Tuesday, saying it went so far to benefit Republicans that it violated the U.S. Constitution.
The ruling is significant because the Supreme Court is considering a case out of Wisconsin that could allow it to articulate, for the first time, a new standard to determine when a gerrymander goes so far to benefit one party that it is unconstitutional. North Carolina’s congressional map is one of the worst cases of gerrymandering in the country, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, and gives Republicans an additional two to three seats in Congress. Republicans have a 10-3 advantage in the House of Representatives under the current map.
The plaintiffs in the case argued that the map, drawn by Republicans in 2016, violated the First Amendment and the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. They also said it violated Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution ― which says members of the House of Representatives shall be “chosen every second Year by the People of the several States” ― as well as the document’s Elections Clause, which says “the Times, Places, and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of choosing Senators.”
The court agreed that the plan violated the Constitution on all those counts, and barred the state from conducting another election under the current map. The current map was drawn after a three-judge panel said that a previous map, drawn in 2011, was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. The court gave the North Carolina General Assembly until Jan. 24 to draw a new map.
Kathay Feng, national redistricting director at the watchdog group Common Cause, told HuffPost the schedule ordered by the court meant North Carolina could see a new congressional map ahead of the 2018 election.
“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. Nor could they. Neither the Supreme Court nor any lower court has recognized any such interest furthered by partisan gerrymandering,” U.S. Circuit Judge James Wynn, who was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit by President Barack Obama, wrote in the majority opinion. “Partisan gerrymandering runs contrary to numerous fundamental democratic principles and individual rights enshrined in the Constitution.”
Wynn was joined in his opinion by Senior U.S. District Judge William Earl Britt of the Eastern District of North Carolina, who was nominated to the bench by President Jimmy Carter. U.S. District Judge William Osteen Jr., who was nominated to the Middle District of North Carolina by President George W. Bush, wrote an opinion that partly concurred with the majority and partly dissented.
Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the North Carolina GOP, harshly criticized the statement and accused the court of infringing on the Legislature’s ability to draw districts. He predicted the Supreme Court would stay the court’s ruling.
“North Carolina’s Congressional Districts are fair, and were drawn following all known rules and existing case law. It is incredibly disappointing that activist judge Jim Wynn is waging a personal, partisan war on North Carolina Republican voters. It is now very clear that Judge Wynn has decided that the North Carolina Republican Party should not be allowed to draw election districts under any circumstances or under any set of rules,” Woodhouse said in a statement. “This is a hostile takeover of the North Carolina General Assembly and legislative bodies across the U.S. The unprecedented usurping of legislative authority by Judge Wynn will most certainly be stayed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile the U.S. Supreme Court should take note of the outrageous political actions of some courts and see what a Pandora’s box they could be opening with partisan gerrymandering claims.”
Former U.S. Attorney Eric Holder, who is now leading the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, praised the decision.
“Today’s ruling was just the latest example of the courts telling state legislators in North Carolina that citizens should be able to pick their representatives, instead of politicians picking their voters. It’s long past time for the legislature to produce fair maps that represent the diverse communities of North Carolina,” Holder said in a statement.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) urged Republican lawmakers in North Carolina to move quickly to comply with the court order to draw fair maps.
“Republicans comprise 30 percent of registered voters in North Carolina, yet they crafted a congressional map that would ensure Republican success in ten of thirteen districts, or 76 percent,” Butterfield said in a statement. “The Republicans made this case relatively simple when they admitted in court that the congressional map was drawn for partisan political advantage.”
Rick Hasen, an election law professor at the University of California, Irvine, wrote in a blog post that Republicans are likely to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in turn would be likely to hold the ruling until it decides two pending cases that deal with partisan gerrymandering.
Feng said the North Carolina ruling, along with partisan gerrymandering cases out of Wisconsin and Maryland, offer the Supreme Court a group of cases where it can draw the line and articulate a standard for when gerrymandering is unconstitutional.
Read the opinion below:
This article has been updated with comments from Woodhouse and Holder.