In 2019, the United Supreme Court ruled that federal judges were unauthorized to issue decisions on state-level political gerrymandering cases. This decision, however, included an opinion on states’ ability to address and rule on such issues however they see fit.
Within four months of the Supreme Court decision, North Carolina judges heard two cases regarding political gerrymandering in the state, striking down several dozen district maps and halting the use of the congressional district map for the 2020 election cycle.
Judges in both cases ruled that North Carolina Republican legislators had violated state ordinances, as well as the constitutional rights to free elections, free speech and equality by drawing the maps in a manner that shifted Democratic voters into specific areas. These maps often made it seemingly impossible for the GOP to lose their majorities. This decision was based on the same reasoning used by Pennsylvania state courts when they struck down a Republican-drawn congressional map in 2018. North Carolina and Pennsylvania are two of 30 states that have constitutional requirements for ‘free’ elections; 18 of these require ‘open’ or ‘equal’ elections, and 15 have legal protections in place to prevent interference by ‘civil or military’ in elections.
“It’s not so much an issue of magic words or something like that. It’s really more whether courts are willing to take the values that may be in state constitutions and then apply them to an area that they’ve never applied it to,” said Michael Li, a redistricting attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice, to the News & Record.
In response to the decision, the majority conservative General Assembly was forced to redraw its own districts and will likely attempt to redraw congressional districts before next November, which could lead to gains in the Democratic party.
Following the next round of compulsory redistricting following the 2020 census, the North Carolina courts’ decisions could prompt lawsuits regarding the use of partisan gerrymandering in other states.
“I would expect to see a large increase in the number of state court cases filed around the country in 2021,” said Paul Smith, who works for the Campaign Legal Center in Washington and represents gerrymandering plaintiffs in North Carolina and Wisconsin, to the News & Record.
North Carolina judges reacted in a quick and assertive way, but the outcomes of similar legal cases in other states will depend upon the way in which the judges, some of which are affiliated with a particular party platform, choose to behave. Many voters have advocated on behalf of legislation that removes map-drawing power from partisan legislators and places it in the control of independent boards.
“Litigation is a hard and painful road,” said Kathay Feng, redistricting director for Common Cause. “[The goal is] to make changes where each 10 years we’re not facing that same uphill…climb.”
Common Cause was a plaintiff in the state lawsuit in September, along with the state Democratic Party and democratic constituents. The court struck down over 75 state legislative districts, and was the first nationwide decision regarding gerrymandering since the June ruling. It ended similar Republican-led gerrymandering occurrences in Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.
However, unlike in North Carolina, none of these rulings were reinvigorated with new state-level lawsuits. Michigan and Ohio voted in favor of legislation to place redistricting power on independent committees rather than partisan groups following the 2020 census. In Wisconsin, the governor has the power to veto redistricting maps guilty of gerrymandering.
In North Carolina, though, Governor Roy Cooper lacks this veto power, and Republican legislators are unhappy with the court’s rulings. According to Republican Senate leader Phil Berger, the judges have shown “a flawed approach to redistricting law” and “found something in the constitution that no one has seen before.”
Even still, Republican legislators did not choose to appeal the court’s decision, and instead opted to redraw the maps in compliance with the court order. This resulted in an improved process that will likely have an impact on future North Carolina mapmaking. The new process will not allow the use of election results or partisan data, and will require maps to be drawn in open committee meetings.
“It will happen in an open, transparent way, just as we had before,” said Republican House Speaker Tim Moore to the News & Record.