Decision means 2018 primaries can proceed in existing districts
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
WASHINGTON (CFP) – The U.S. Supreme Court has indefinitely stayed a ruling by a panel of three federal judges that invalidated North Carolina’s U.S. House map for unconstitutionally diluting the voting strength of Democrats.
The January 18 decision by the high court means state legislators will not have to redraw the map for the 2018 midterm election, a prospect that threatened to throw the election process into chaos.
The Supreme Court’s unsigned order stays the ruling “pending the timely filing and disposition of an appeal by this court.”
While the order did not indicate how many of the justices were in favor of granting a stay, it did note that two members of the court’s liberal bloc, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, wanted to deny the application for a stay filed by Republican lawmakers.
Common Cause North Carolina and the League of Women Voters of North Carolina sued to invalidate the House map passed by the GOP-controlled legislature in 2016, arguing that the Republican majority improperly used political considerations in drawing the map.
No federal court had ever a stuck down a congressional map for being gerrymandered for political, rather than racial, reasons. But the majority opinion from three-judge panel who heard the case said partisan gerrymandering – a common political practice in many U.S. states – violates a “core principle of republican government” that “voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around.”
The January 9 ruling gave state lawmakers just 20 days to draw a new map, an order that is now on hold until the Supreme Court considers the appeal. Qualifying for the May 8 primary is scheduled to begin Feb. 28.
The high court is already considering similar cases involving state legislative districts in Wisconsin and Maryland that could set a precedent for the North Carolina case.
Should the ruling in North Carolina be upheld on appeal, it could have significant effects in other Southern states where Republican state legislative majorities have gerrymandered maps to their advantage, particularly Florida, Virginia and Texas.
Democrats cheered the ruling, which could help them make a dent in the GOP’s 10-to-3 advantage in North Carolina’s congressional delegation. But Republicans accused the judges of “waging a personal, partisan war” against the state GOP.
Ironically, what may have sunk the North Carolina map was the explicit admission by GOP lawmakers back in 2016 that they were drawing lines to maximize the number of Republican-friendly seats – an admission made to overcome objections to a previous map struck down for improperly using racial considerations.
After the map was redrawn in 2016, several incumbent lawmakers were forced to run in new territory and one, former U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers, didn’t survive after she was forced to run against another incumbent in a Republican primary. However, the new map did not change the overall party composition in the state’s House delegation.
The 2016 map has allowed Republicans to hold on 77 percent of the state’s congressional seats, even though election results have been closely divided between the parties in recent statewide and presidential elections.
Donald Trump carried North Carolina by just 4 points in 2016, as Democrat Roy Cooper squeaked into the governorship by a margin of less than 1 percent.
The redistricting case was heard by James Wynn, a judge on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; W. Earl Britt, a senior U.S. District Court judge in Raleigh; and William Osteen Jr., a U.S. District Court judge in Greensboro.
Wynn and Britt were appointed by Democratic presidents; Osteen, who dissented from part of the ruling while concurring in striking down the map, is a Republican appointee.