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U.S. Supreme Court lets congressional maps stand in Texas, North Carolina

Rulings may leave current maps will be in place until after reapportionment in 2021

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

WASHINGTON (CFP) — Republican legislators in Texas and North Carolina have both dodged a bullet after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to invalidate congressional maps in both states that lower courts had struck down as illegally gerrymandered.

In the Texas case, the justices rejected a claim that state legislators impermissibly used race to draw electoral maps. In the North Carolina case, they vacated a lower court decision holding that the state’s map unconstitutionally diluted the voting strength of Democrats and ordered the case to be reconsidered.

The high court’s June 25 decisions mean that neither state is likely to face a court-ordered redraw in this election cycle. And while the North Carolina case could be reconsidered for the 2020 election, the ruling in the Texas case likely means that the current map will be used until after new maps are drawn in 2021, based on the results of the 2020 census.

In their decison in the Texas case, the justices ruled 5-to-4 that a lower court erred in finding back in 2017 that a congressional map and state House maps adopted in 2013 should be struck down because they were impermissibly drawn using racial considerations. The Supreme Court had put that ruling on hold while it considered the state’s appeal.

The two congressional districts involved in the lawsuit were the 27th District, which stretches along the Gulf Coast from Corpus Christi toward Houston, and the 35th District, which covers parts of Austin and San Antonio linked by a narrow strip of land.

The lower court’s objection to the 27th District was the GOP-controlled legislature reduced the Latino population from 70 percent to around 50 percent. The objection to the 35 District was that legislators used race to create a district that is more than 70 percent Latino and African American, reducing minority populations in surrounding districts.

The 27th District, currently vacant, has been held by Republicans since it was redrawn. U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a white Democrat from Austin, represents the 35th District.

In his majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito said the evidence offered by the plaintiffs “is plainly insufficient to prove that the 2013 Legislature acted in bad faith and engaged in intentional discrimination.” The justices did uphold a ruling that a Texas House district in Fort Worth was an impermissible racial gerrymander.

But in her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the court’s decision means minority voters in Texas “will continue to be underrepresented in the political process.”

“Those voters must return to the polls in 2018 and 2020 with the knowledge that their ability to exercise meaningfully their right to vote has been burdened by the manipulation of district lines specifically designed to target their communities and minimize their political will,” she wrote.

In the North Carolina case, the justices vacated a 2018 ruling by a three-judge panel that the congressional map adopted by Republican legislators in 2016 was unconstitutional because it diluted the voting strength of Democrats — the first time that a federal court had ever struck down a congressional map on the grounds of political, rather than racial, gerrymandering.

The Supreme Court had also put that ruling on hold while it considered an appeal.

The Tar Heel State’s map had been redrawn in 2016 after a previous map had been struck down for improperly using racial considerations. GOP lawmakers freely admitted that they were drawing lines to maximize the number of Republican-friendly seats, which the lower court found was evidence of unconstitutional partisan taint.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to North Carolina to be reconsidered in light of a ruling earlier this year in case involving a partisan gerrymander in Wisconsin. In that case, the high court sidestepped the question of whether drawing maps that favor one party over another can be found unconstitutional, returning the case to a lower court on narrow jurisdictional grounds.

The court’s order did not indicate how, or if, justices were split on the merits of the case.

While North Carolina is divided fairly evenly in presidential races and has a Democratic governor, Republicans hold a commanding 10-to-3 margin in the U.S. House delegation.

Texas, which leans more Republican, has 24 Republicans and 11 Democrats in its delegation, with one seat vacant.

U.S. Supreme Court stays ruling striking down North Carolina U.S. House map

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.

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