The North Carolina General Assembly delivered its proposed new state legislative maps before the court-ordered deadline last week. Now we’ll see what a state court has to say about legislators’ latest go.
In early September, a three-judge panel struck down the legislative maps which were used in the 2018 elections, ruling they were extreme partisan gerrymanders and violated the state constitution. Those maps were drawn in 2017, in response to a federal court’s ruling that the 2011 maps were racial gerrymanders. The latest ruling told legislators they were out of time, and had one more shot to deliver constitutional maps.
The court laid out specific requirements for the new maps, and mandated an extraordinarily public process for drawing them. In just two weeks, the General Assembly moved through that process, and delivered a set of districts which most Republicans (and some Democrats) said produced the least-gerrymandered maps in recent memory.
Of course, that’s an extremely low bar to clear, given that North Carolina’s legislative and congressional maps have been the national poster child for extreme partisan gerrymandering for at least a decade. Both parties have been guilty of gerrymandering in the past, but only since the Republican takeover in 2011 has the process been undertaken with such computer-driven precision as to be practically unbreakable.
The final legislative votes for the new maps were largely along party lines, in part because some of the county “clusters” remained controversial. Some opponents also maintain that the selection of the original base maps for the redrawing process was tainted by partisan calculations.
The next stage of that process will come over the next few weeks, as the court’s appointed “referee” will assess the legislature’s maps against the court’s criteria. Then the judges will issue their final ruling with approved maps, including any changes it deems necessary to satisfy state constitutional requirements. Those maps, as adjusted by the referee and approved by the court, will be used in next year’s elections.
At that point, either side could appeal to the state Supreme Court, which would likely have the final legal word on the matter. Observers generally anticipate that court, with a 6-1 Democratic majority, would uphold the lower court’s ruling striking down extreme partisan gerrymandering. Legislative leaders declined to appeal to the state Supreme Court earlier this month because they did not want its ruling to become established legal precedent binding them against partisan gerrymandering in future map drawing. But if plaintiffs appeal the lower court’s final maps as unsatisfactory, legislators would not be able to stop the court from taking up the case if it wants to.
In theory, the losing side of such an appeal could then ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the state court’s decision. But that court signaled earlier this year that it would not strike down maps as violating the U.S. Constitution on the basis of partisan gerrymandering. That same ruling said state courts could make different findings on state constitutional claims, meaning justices would likely deny such an appeal, deferring to state courts’ judgment of their own constitution.
This appeals process could delay candidate filing (set for December) and legislative primaries (March 3, 2020), and the state court reserved the right to move those dates if necessary.
NCLCV and other voting rights advocates strongly support fair maps drawn to create competitive districts across the state. NCLCV believes that voters in fair, competitive districts will choose candidates who protect our health and quality of life. Whether legislators’ proposed maps survive or the referee adjusts them to meet constitutional muster, the 2020 election could represent a new day for democracy and environmental protection in our state.