Politics & Government

The Supreme Court won’t overturn NC’s congressional maps. Will lawmakers act?

North Carolina won’t have to draw new congressional districts for the 2020 elections after the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a high-profile legal loss for the state’s Democrats and for anti-gerrymandering advocates across the country.

The court’s 5-4 decision was published Thursday. A lower court had previously ruled that North Carolina’s Republican-led state legislature violated the U.S. Constitution when it drew lines for the state’s 13 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, by gerrymandering them to artificially inflate the power of Republican voters and diminish the power of Democratic voters.

But the Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that partisan gerrymandering is beyond their authority to judge. That’s different from racial gerrymandering, which the court has long held to be unconstitutional. They split along ideological lines, with the court’s five conservative-leaning judges voting in the majority and the four liberal-leaning justices voting in the minority.

Chief Justice John Roberts, in the court’s majority opinion, wrote that “excessive partisanship in districting leads to results that reasonably seem unjust,” and cited a previous ruling calling it “incompatible with democratic principles.”

But he said it’s not up to the Supreme Court to end it.

Roberts said any challenge to partisan gerrymandering should be left up to Congress or state legislatures, and to have the courts step in would be “an unprecedented expansion of judicial power.”

Divided court

Justice Elena Kagan, in the dissenting opinion, wrote that gerrymandering is “anti-democratic in the most profound sense.” She expressed “deep sadness” that the conservative majority chose not to step in to stop it.

“The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government,” she wrote. “Part of the Court’s role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections.”

Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Kagan, while Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas formed the majority with Roberts.

Lopsided results

North Carolina Republicans won a 10-3 advantage in the U.S. House of Representatives even though the statewide vote was only narrowly in favor of Republican candidates. The justices also upheld maps from Maryland, where Democrats hold a 7-1 majority in the House, which is similarly lopsided compared to their overall support.

In a news conference Thursday morning, Republican Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County — a key architect of the maps and other voting legislation in North Carolina — said “this is a complete vindication of our state.”

Rep. David Lewis of Dunn, N.C. addresses the Supreme Court ruling on gerrymandering during a press conference on Thursday, June 27, 2019 at the General Assembly in Raleigh, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

State Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Democrat from Charlotte, wrote on Twitter that the ruling “will go down as one of the worst and most destructive decisions in the history of the court.”

“For the Republican legislators in NC who are cheering, go talk to the Republican legislators in Maryland who are mortified,” Jackson wrote in another tweet. “Then maybe you’ll see this is about basic freedom and not temporary advantage.”

Another lawsuit

One of the groups that sued over North Carolina’s political maps was Common Cause, and the head of its North Carolina branch, Bob Phillips, said the ruling’s victims were North Carolina voters who “do not have a voice in Washington because a narrow majority of the U.S. Supreme Court has condoned an abusive partisan gerrymander.”

Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause of North Carolina listens to Rep. David Lewis of Dunn, N.C. as Lewis addresses the Supreme Court ruling on gerrymandering during a press conference on Thursday, June 27, 2019 at the General Assembly in Raleigh, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

But he also pointed to a separate lawsuit, in the state court system, that’s challenging the constitutionality of the lines used to elect members of the North Carolina General Assembly.

Lewis called for that lawsuit to be dismissed Thursday, but that appears unlikely.

“We are confident that justice will prevail in the North Carolina courts,” Phillips said.

Common Cause of North Carolina staff member Brent Laurenz, right, reacts after reading the Supreme Court’s decision on gerrymandering at the Common Cause office on Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh, N.C. on Thursday, June 27, 2019 Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

On Twitter Thursday, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper also invoked that state-level lawsuit.

“Now the fight against extreme partisan gerrymandering that undermines democracy moves to state courts and the ballot box,” Cooper wrote. “The battle is far from over.”

Calls for the legislature to act

John Hood, the board chairman of the conservative John Locke Foundation think tank in Raleigh, said lawmakers should heed Roberts’ ruling and work on reforms at the legislature — specifically, by amending the state constitution.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers filed a bill earlier this year to do exactly that. It’s called the FAIR Act, or House Bill 140. If approved, it would allow voters in 2020 to decide whether to reform the state’s redistricting laws.

Despite support from members of both parties as well as from notable figures like Republican megadonor Art Pope and former UNC System President Tom Ross, the proposal has gained no traction at the legislature. But Mary Wills Bode, the executive director of North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform, said debate will start to heat up now.

“Everyone was watching for this decision, how this was going to end up,” she said in an interview Thursday. “And now that we know we can move forward and continue to have discussions for what a viable option for North Carolina would look like. We need a permanent fix.”

The timing is important because there will be another round of redistricting in 2021, after the results of the 2020 Census are published.

“Now is the time,” Bode said. “We would love to see a step in the right direction to bring reform to North Carolina for this next redistricting session ... so we don’t end up with another decade of litigation back and forth.”

The amendment proposal is one of several ideas for redistricting reform that have been filed at the legislature this year. Lewis said Thursday he’d be willing to hear arguments for change.

“We are open to anything that is an improvement in the process,” Lewis said. “I’ve been very willing to talk about ideas to do a better job in producing maps.”

But one of the plaintiffs who lost in court Thursday, Duke University professor Gunther Peck, said the ruling “emboldens, unfortunately, those who would win unfairly.”

He’s not confident, he said in an interview, that political leaders want reform.

“There needs to be a sense of the self-interest in the Republican Party of doing the morally right thing,” Peck said, adding: “that is a hard argument to win, since you are at some level asking people to give up power they have accumulated.”

Some want Congress to step in

There’s also a push to take politics out of redistricting nationally, although it has stalled.

The Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed a wide-ranging elections and ethics reform bill that included nonpartisan redistricting, but the Republican-controlled Senate has not taken it up.

Democratic Rep. David Price, who represents much of the Triangle in Congress, also sponsored a separate bill that only deals with redistricting reform. He pushed for its passage in a Thursday press release.

“While today’s ruling is discouraging, it puts the ball squarely in our court,” Price said. “Congress, state legislatures, and concerned citizens should redouble our efforts to restore our democracy and return power to the people.”

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Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.