U.S. Supreme Court agrees NC lawmakers created illegal congressional district maps in 2011

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that North Carolina lawmakers relied too heavily on race when drawing congressional districts in 2011, affirming a lower-court ruling that forced legislators to create new maps last year.

The racial gerrymanders that left Republicans representing 10 of 13 North Carolina congressional districts were meant to dilute the power of black voters in the political process and muffle their voice, according to the ruling.

It was not immediately clear what effect the decision would have on lingering questions over the districts used to elect the state legislature, and whether lawmakers will have to draw new maps and hold legislative elections in 2017. On Monday, after issuing the ruling, the Supreme Court added a case involving those legislative districts to its Thursday conference list. In conferences, the justices go behind closed doors together to decide which cases they will take up for further review.

“We already have new congressional districts in North Carolina,” said Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a law firm that represented challengers of the maps. “What I find most significant is that the legislature made the same legal mistake and used race the same way in drawing the state’s House and Senate districts. This opinion, with Justice (Clarence) Thomas joining the majority, must mean those districts are also unconstitutional.”

Monday’s ruling upheld a three-judge panel’s February 2016 decision finding that the 12th Congressional District and 1st Congressional District drawn by the Republican-controlled legislature were racial gerrymanders. Both districts were represented by Democrats.

The 5-3 ruling, written by Justice Elena Kagan, is among a series from the justices against the excessive use of race in the redrawing of legislative and congressional lines that state lawmakers across the country must take on every decade after the release of new Census data.

Thomas joined the majority, taking a stand with more liberal justices with whom he often disagrees.

Justice Samuel Alito dissented in part from the ruling, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy. The newest justice, Neil Gorsuch, did not participate in the case.

Voters in the 1st and 12th districts brought the lawsuit challenging the two districts. The challengers said the 1st was “akin to a Rorschach inkblot” weaving through 24 counties and containing only five whole counties. The district was mostly in the northeastern part of the state and included Durham, Elizabeth City, Roanoke Rapids, Rocky Mount, Goldsboro and New Bern.

The 12th District was 120 miles long but just 20 miles wide at its widest part. The district included large portions of Charlotte and Greensboro connected by a thin strip – “averaging only a few miles wide,” the lawsuit said – that followed Interstate 85. The district was the most litigated in the country during the 1990s, and was the subject of four cases that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. Redistricting lawsuits delayed North Carolina elections in 1998 and 2002.

In court documents and at trial, attorneys representing legislators who shepherded the map-drawing in 2011 insisted that race was not the driving factor in the creation of the 12th District.

They argued that Republicans drew the maps to leave at least one of the two districts in Democratic hands, while making surrounding districts safer for Republicans.

“The evidence offered at trial ... adequately supports the conclusion that race, not politics, accounted for the district’s reconfiguration,” Kagan wrote of the 12th District.

In his dissent, Alito disagreed, saying the lines for the district “are readily explained by political considerations.”

Alito said the court’s ruling conflicts with a previous ruling involving the 12th District that said challengers needed to present their own maps showing how to accomplish the legislature’s political goals without the same racial impact.

“A precedent of this Court should not be treated like a disposable household item—say, a paper plate or napkin— to be used once and then tossed in the trash,” Alito wrote.

Republicans have also noted that the Obama-administration Justice Department signed off on the districts. The Supreme Court has since changed that process by nullifying a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. The Justice Department officials who reviewed the plans said they did not hurt the ability of minorities to elect their candidates of choice in the districts being challenged.

But the challengers contended, and the court agreed, that the maps added black voters to districts where they had already been successful in electing their candidates of choice despite being in the minority.

New congressional district maps were adopted in February 2016 to address the three-judge panel’s ruling. Those maps were used to elect members of Congress last fall, which maintained the delegation’s 10-3 split favoring Republicans.

David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican and chairman of the House Redistricting Committee, said he respected the Supreme Court and is “glad the issue is resolved for 2018.” It would have been disruptive for the districts to go back to the 2011 boundaries, Lewis added.

The new maps are the focus of a separate lawsuit questioning the breadth to which lawmakers can draw districts for partisan advantage. A hearing in that case is scheduled in federal court in June.

Eric Holder, who served as U.S. attorney general under former President Barack Obama and as a leader of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a group backing Democrats in redistricting fights, praised Monday’s ruling.

“This is a watershed moment in the fight to end racial gerrymandering,” Holder said in a statement. “North Carolina’s maps were among the worst racial gerrymanders in the nation. Today’s ruling sends a stark message to legislatures and governors around the country: Racial gerrymandering is illegal and will be struck down in a court of law.”

The Rev. William J. Barber II, head of the state NAACP, which helped bring the lawsuit in the case, said the ruling highlights what he contends has been a pattern in the General Assembly since Republicans gained control of both chambers in 2011.

“Once again with this victory the courts have said that the NC General Assembly through apartheid-type redistricting engaged in systemic racism and cheated to win elections,” Barber said in a statement. “Over and over again our unconstitutionally constituted General Assembly is being proven to be the antithesis of justice, true democracy and the fundamental principles of equality.”

Similarly, N.C. Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin said Republicans in the legislature “have constantly discriminated against African Americans,” and Gov. Roy Cooper said GOP lawmakers “tried to rig congressional elections by drawing unconstitutional districts that discriminated against African Americans.”

GOP leaders said the legislature faces difficulties in satisfying the courts.

“We have the utmost respect for the Supreme Court, but it is challenging for our lawmakers to draw congressional districts that the courts will accept when the courts regularly change the rules state legislatures must follow when drawing them,” said Amy Auth, a spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger.

“Our position continues to be the same as the Obama Justice Department on this issue, which pre-cleared these districts as fair and legal. I don’t know how any legislature can perform this task when the rules change constantly from case to case, often after the fact,” N.C. Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes said.

Many used the case to push for reform, both inside North Carolina and across the country.

Tom Ross, the former UNC president and a former North Carolina Superior Court judge, has worked with a coalition of people from both political parties to put an end to gerrymandering.

In a phone interview on Monday, Ross pointed out the millions of dollars spent on lawsuits after each round of redistricting and the uncertainty about whether North Carolina’s cases related to 2011 map drawing will be resolved in the courts before 2021, when it will be time to tweak the lines again after the 2020 Census report.

Ross, who now works with the Volcker Alliance, a New York-based nonpartisan organization aimed at rebuilding public trust in government, said modern gerrymandering plays a part in the growing distrust.

“I blame both parties,” Ross said, adding that he thinks the way to change the trend is to amend the North Carolina Constitution to include an independent redistricting process.

Staff writer Lynn Bonner contributed to this report.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1