The U.S. Supreme Court blocked a federal court ruling which directed North Carolina legislators to redraw state legislative districts by March 15, 2017. The decision was announced Jan 10.
In addition to delaying state district revisions, the block by the Supreme Court means that any special elections within the contested districts will not take place this fall, as was initially planned.
In November of 2016, a three-judge federal panel struck down NC’s 2011 State House and Senate redistricting map due to illegal “racial gerrymanders.” The panel found all 28 districts to be drawn with enough racial bias to be unconstitutional and therefore in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The districts were permitted to participate in the 2016 elections as the courts could not find a timely resolution before the end of 2016, due to the number of districts affected. Legislators elected to the NC House and Senate before the federal court ruling who serve in districts where boundaries will be altered will be in office one year only, rather than the customary two-year term.
“North Carolinians deserve fair representation in the state legislature, and that is impossible to achieve with racially gerrymandered districts. A special election in the affected districts in 2017 is the best way to protect the rights of all North Carolinians,” said Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ).
Earls and the Poyner Spruill and Tin Fulton law firms represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. With the legislative lines having been drawn in 2011, the coalition also challenged the political maps last year, stating that the lines “diluted the state’s black vote and gave Republicans an advantage.”
Representative David Lewis (R-Harnett) and Senator Bob Rucho (R-Mecklenburg) both had a hand in the 2011 redistricting in their roles as Chairmen of the House and Senate Redistricting Committees. Lewis and Rucho released the following joint statement on Nov 29:
“This politically-motivated decision, which would effectively undo the will of millions of North Carolinians just days after they cast their ballots, is a gross overreach that blatantly disregards the constitutional guarantee for voters to duly elect their legislators to biennial terms. We continue to believe the maps drawn by the General Assembly, pre-cleared by the Obama Justice Department and twice upheld by our state’s elected Supreme Court are constitutional, and we will move quickly to appeal.”
Altered districts were to have the off-year election this November, but the Supreme Court has put the redistricting and the special election on hold while it reviews the Republican legislators appeals in an ongoing lawsuit.
The order will be on hold until a conference on January 19 among the justices to decide whether they will continue the order to redraw, or keep the districts in place as of now. It is ambiguous if there will be elections this year due to the conference’s date, but it is possible the justices could dismiss the appeal and keep the order for the new maps and elections in effect for the year, or attorneys could become more involved and set arguments for later dates. With the Supreme Court down a justice after Antonin Scalia’s death, a 4-4 decision would keep the federal court ruling from earlier in place.
The Southern Coalition for Social Justice issued a statement on the impact of the order.
“Today’s (Jan. 10) action just puts everything on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court considers the appeal of whether the district court was correct to order special elections in 2017,” executive director Earls said. “On behalf of our clients, we continue to trust that the district court’s ruling will be upheld and new districts ultimately will be drawn that are not based on race.”