North Carolina’s Supreme Court votes on gerrymandering case

Last year, Democratic justices of the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that maps of the state’s legislative and congressional districts drawn to give Republicans a losing majority were illegal gerrymanders. On Friday, the same court, led by a newly elected Republican majority, looked at the same facts, reversed itself He said he had no authority to act further.

A court order used in last November’s elections has the practical effect of removing district lines for the Republican-controlled General Assembly, Senate and Congress and drawing new maps skewed in favor of Republicans in the 2024 elections. The -to-2 ruling fell along party lines, reflecting the Republican takeover of the justices in last November’s partisan elections.

The decision has important implications not only for the state legislature, where the GOP clings to its veto-proof supermajority status, but also for the U.S. House, where the new North Carolina map could add at least three Republican seats. 2024 is now the Republican majority. Reversing such a recent decision by the court is a highly unusual move, especially on a key constitutional issue where no facts have changed.

The North Carolina case reflects a national trend in which states electing their justices — in Ohio, Kentucky, Kansas, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and others — have turned races for their high court seats into multimillion-dollar political battles, and their decisions are watched. Through a deeply partisan lens.

Such political comedy was once limited to battles to secure seats on the US Supreme Court. But as the nation’s partisan divide deepens and federal courts send questions on issues like abortion and affirmative action to the states, who decides state legal battles has become an openly political fight.

A new Republican majority of justices said the North Carolina Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction to strike down partisan maps drawn by the General Assembly.

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“Our Constitution expressly reserves the power of redistricting to the General Assembly subject to express limitations in its text,” Chief Justice Paul Newby wrote for the majority. “If this Court were to create such a limitation, there would be no judicially discernible or manageable standard by which to adjudicate such claims.”

Judge Newby said the Democrats who presided over the previous court had created a standard for determining when a political map was too discriminatory, but that it “got bogged down in policy choices” and violated the state constitution’s grant of redistricting powers to the Legislature.

Legal scholars said the ruling could derail a landmark case now before the U.S. Supreme Court involving the same maps. In that case, the leaders of the Republican-controlled legislature, Moore v. Harper argued that the U.S. Constitution gives state legislatures full authority to set the rules for state elections and political maps, and that state courts have no role in overseeing them.

Now that the state Supreme Court has sided with the Legislature and overturned its predecessor’s ruling, there is no dispute the federal judges’ decision, scholars said.

The ruling came after one of the elected Democratic judges, Anita S. It drew furious displeasure from Earls, who said it was rife with “lawlessness”. He accused the majority of making dubious legal arguments and sometimes using false statistics to make a false case that partisan gerrymandering is beyond its jurisdiction.

“The majority ignores the indisputable facts about the motives behind partisan gerrymandering and erects an implausible facade that only parrots Democratic values ​​in an effort to defend its end,” he wrote. “These attempts to downplay the practice will not erase its effects, and the general public will not care.”

Some legal experts say the ruling underscores a trend in state courts to elect their judges, in which decisions in politically charged cases tend to align more with ideological views, sometimes regardless of legal precedent, regardless of which party holds a majority on the court.

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“If you think the previous state Supreme Court was wrong, we have the means to change it, like a constitutional amendment,” said Joshua A. Douglas said in an interview. “But changing judges should not cause such a sea change in the rule of law, because then precedent no longer has any value, and judges are really politicians.”

The state court issued two more rulings in politically charged cases, overturning rulings that favored voting rights advocates and their Democratic supporters.

First, the judges reconsidered reversed a judgment A previous court ruled, again on party lines, that the voter ID law passed by a Republican majority in the Legislature violated the state constitution’s equal protection clause.

in the second, The court said A lower court “misapplied the law and ignored facts critical to its ruling” when it struck down a state law that denied the right to vote to those who had completed prison sentences on felony charges but had not yet been released from parole, probation or other court restrictions.

A lower court said the provision was rooted in an earlier law written to deny African Americans the right to vote, a decision the justices said was wrong.

That ruling overturned a ruling that restored voting rights to more than 55,000 North Carolinians who had completed prison terms. Those rights have now been revoked, prosecutors said, leaving the status of ex-felons who had already registered or voted under the previous ruling unclear.

Friday’s ruling in the gerrymandering case, now Harper v. Known as Hall, November’s partisan elections for two Supreme Court seats came after the seven-member court’s political balance shifted from 4 to 3 Democrats to 5 to 2 Republicans. .

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A Democratic-controlled court ruled along party lines in February 2022 that both state legislative maps and congressional district maps approved by Republican legislatures violated the state constitution’s guarantees of free speech, free elections, free assembly, and equal protection.

A lower court later reviewed the congressional map for use in the November elections, but the dispute over the state Senate map, which GOP leaders redrawn, bubbled back to the state Supreme Court last winter. In one of its last acts, the court’s Democratic majority threw out the GOP’s state Senate map and ordered it redraw. The court then reaffirmed its earlier order in a lengthy opinion.

Ordinarily, that would have ended the matter. But after a new Republican majority was elected to the court, GOP legislative leaders demanded The judges rehearse that Not just the argument over the redrawn Senate map, but the entire case.

Friday’s ruling followed a brief retrial of the gerrymander case in mid-March.

North Carolina voters are almost evenly split between the two major parties; Donald J. Trump carried the state in 2020 with 49.9 percent of the vote. But the original map of congressional districts approved by the GOP legislature in 2021, later ruled a partisan gerrymander, could have given Republicans at least 10 of the state’s 14 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Using a congressional map drawn last year by a court-appointed special master, seven congressional seats were awarded to each party in the November election. With Friday’s decision, the GOP Legislature is likely to approve a new map through its first one, giving state Republicans — and slim Republicans in the U.S. House — a chance to pick up at least three seats.

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