State Watch

Court strikes down North Carolina congressional map as unconstitutional

A three-judge panel in North Carolina on Monday struck down the state's Republican-drawn redistricting map as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander for the second time this year.

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina ruled Republicans had redrawn the map to unconstitutionally favor their party. The panel reached the same conclusion in January, and the case ultimately made its way to the Supreme Court.  

But the justices in June sent the issue back down to the lower court to re-examine whether the plaintiffs had standing to sue in light of their decision in another partisan gerrymandering case out of Wisconsin.  

The North Carolina court said the Wisconsin case did not call into question - and, if anything, supported - its previous determination that challengers had standing to assert partisan gerrymandering claims.

In writing the majority opinion, which Judge William Earl Britt joined, Judge James Wynn said partisan gerrymanders "raise the specter that the Government may effectively drive certain ideas or viewpoints from the marketplace" because they "intentionally seek to entrench a favored party in power and make it difficult - if not impossible - for candidates of parties supporting disfavored viewpoints to prevail."

"That is precisely what the Republican-controlled North Carolina General Assembly sought to do here," he said.

Wynn said legislative defendants drew a plan designed to subordinate the interests of non-Republican voters not because they believe doing so advances any democratic, constitutional, or public interest, but because, as the chief legislative map drawer openly acknowledged, the General Assembly's Republican majority "thinks electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats."

"But that is not a choice the Constitution allows legislative map drawers to make," he said. "Rather, 'those who govern should be the last people to help decide who should govern.' "

Common Cause, one of the groups challenging the maps, hailed the court's decision Monday.

 "Common Cause and our partners in this lawsuit took the fight to politicians who manipulate our democracy and we won," Karen Hobert Flynn, the group's president, said in a statement.

"We anticipate an appeal and are ready to turn legislators' brazen partisan gerrymander into a historic ruling in the Supreme Court to end the practice nationwide."

The court said it has not yet decided if it's going to give the General Assembly another chance to draw a constitutionally compliant redistricting plan. The court has given Republican state officials until Aug. 31 to file briefs arguing why it should.

If the court agrees to give state officials another chance to draw new maps, Wynn said it will not consider any remedial plans enacted after 5 p.m. on Sept. 17.

But given the Nov. 6 midterm elections are fast-approaching, Wynn said the court finds it appropriate to take steps to ensure the timely availability of an alternative plan to use. He said a special master will be appointed "in short order" to help the court draw a remedial plan, which will be used if the court decides not to give North Carolina officials another chance to redraw the maps or if the maps they draw fail to remedy the constitutional violation.

The case could find its way back before the Supreme Court, which is now split 4-4 along ideological lines following Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement. 

The court is on summer recess until the beginning of October, and the Senate's GOP leadership has indicated that it plans to confirm Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump's nominee to replace Kennedy, before the new session.

- Updated at 8:11 p.m. Morgan Gstalter contributed.

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