Court says politically gerrymandered maps violate state constitution, orders legislators to try again
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
RALEIGH (CFP) – North Carolina’s Supreme Court has struck down political maps drawn by Republican legislators to maximize their political advantage over the next decade, a victory for Democrats in one of the country’s most evenly divided swing states.
In a February 4 decision, the high court, which has a 4-to-3 Democratic majority, said maps drawn for U.S. House seats and state legislative districts were gerrymandered for political reasons in violation of the state constitution.
The court gave legislators just two weeks, until February 18, to redraw the maps, or a lower court will take over the process. It did not delay the scheduled May 17 primary but said that election must use the new maps.
“Achieving partisan advantage incommensurate with a political party’s level of statewide voter support is neither a compelling nor a legitimate governmental interest,” said the majority ruling, penned by Associate Justice Robin Hudson, a Democrat.
The court also ordered legislators to avoid chopping up counties into multiple districts whenever possible – a direct shot at the Republican map, which divided Mecklenberg and Guilford counties into three districts each to dilute the Democratic vote in Charlotte and Greensboro.
In a sharply worded dissent, Chief Justice Paul Newby, a Republican, accused the court’s Democratic majority of usurping the legislature’s power to decide redistricting, suggesting that amounted to “judicial despotism”
“A majority of this court … tosses judicial restraint aside, seizing the opportunity to advance its agenda,” Newby wrote.
North Carolina is one of just six states where judges are elected on a partisan basis.
Although North Carolina is closely competitive between Democrats and Republicans, the U.S. House map drawn by Republican legislators would have likely given the GOP 10 of the state’s 14 seats, compared to the current line-up of eight Republicans and five Democrats. (The state gained a new seat during reapportionment after the 2020 census.)
The legislative maps would also have cemented Republican control of both houses of the legislature over the next decade.
Democratic Governor Roy Cooper did not have the power to veto the maps, drawn by Republicans who control both houses of the legislature, forcing Democrats to go to court to try to reverse them.
The biggest beneficiary of the court’s decision may be freshman Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Manning, whose district in Greensboro and Winston-Salem was dismembered in the invalidated map. She had not announced her re-election plans, pending resolution of the legal challenge.
Another Democrat, U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield –- a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus who sat on the state Supreme Court before his election to Congress — retired after legislators made his district in rural Eastern North Carolina more competitive by reducing its population of black voters.
Democratic U.S. Rep. David Price from Chapel Hill also announced his retirement, even though his district was left largely intact.
After Republican legislators passed their map, U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn announced that he would leave his current district in far Western North Carolina and run instead in a more Republican district just to the east that included suburban Charlotte. Those plans may be upended once the map is redrawn.
Another candidate who may be affected is Clay Aiken, the “American Idol” finalist who announced he would run as a Democrat for Price’s seat. Although the new map is not likely to change that district, had it stood, Aiken may have faced a primary contest against Manning, rather than a easier run for an open seat.
Cooper hailed the court’s decision in a statement, saying “a healthy democracy requires free elections and the NC Supreme Court is right to order a redraw of unconstitutionally gerrymandered districts.”
“More work remains and any legislative redraw must reflect the full intent of this decision,” he said.
But Republican State Senator Ralph Hise, chair of the Senate’s redistricting committee, called the decision a “perverse precedent” that will be “nearly impossible to unwind.”
“Democratic judges, lawyers, and activists have worked in concert to transform the Supreme Court into a policymaking body to impose their political ideas,” Hise said.