Arguments in an upcoming NC case could lead to a landmark Supreme Court ruling

A North Carolina case that will heard this month by the U.S. Supreme Court is “the best opportunity ever” to ban so-called partisan gerrymandering, a redistricting reform advocate said Wednesday.

Seth Waxman, a former U.S. Solicitor General, said the N.C. case will test whether courts can put limits on what he called “utterly raw political gerrymandering.”

The high court will hear arguments on March 26 about two cases that critics say epitomize the worst in partisan districting. One involves a redistricting plan by Maryland Democrats. The other focuses on a 2016 plan by North Carolina Republicans.

Together, the cases could lead to a landmark ruling this spring.

Last year a panel of federal judges ruled that the “pro-Republican bias” of the N.C. redistricting plan violated the First Amendment and other constitutional provisions and represented “an impermissible effort to ‘dictate electoral outcomes.’ ” The case went to the Supreme Court, which sidestepped the question of partisan districting and sent the case back on a procedural issue. The lower court affirmed its ruling, sending the case back to the high court.

Two N.C. cases — Rucho v. Common Cause and Rucho v. League of Women Voters of North Carolina — are combined in the challenge.

In a brief filed this week, the watchdog group Common Cause says North Carolina is a “purple” state.

“Its voters split almost equally between Democratic and Republican congressional candidates,” the brief says. “Its delegation once reflected this, often dividing 7-6 or 6-7. That changed markedly when the Republican Party captured the General Assembly in 2010. That yielded a 9-4 Republican supermajority in the 2012 election, even though Democratic candidates received more votes statewide. That advantage grew to 10-3 in 2014, even though Republican candidates received only 54 percent of the vote.”

The group cited the words of GOP Rep. David Lewis, who chaired the House redistricting efforts.

“I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats,” Lewis told lawmakers. “So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country. I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and 3 Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and 2 Democrats.”

The brief also cites the 2018 election. While Democrats nationally added 40 seats in the U.S. House, it says “the red wall in North Carolina largely stood fast.” On Election Night, Republicans appeared to still hold 10 of 13 congressional districts.

Critics say politics is inevitable in drawing political districts. In his dissent in the N.C. case, federal District Judge William Osteen Jr. wrote that he doubts it’s constitutional to limit “partisan political consideration by a partisan legislative body.”

This month’s hearing won’t be the first time N.C. districting plans will have reached the Supreme Court. Multiple redistricting cases have gone there, starting with “Gingles” in 1986. By challenging multi-member districts, that case paved the way for the election of hundreds of black elected officials in North Carolina and across the country. Subsequent N.C. cases refined and limited the extent to which race could be used in drawing voting districts.

This year there have been more attempts to change North Carolina’s redistricting system.

Last month former UNC System President Tom Ross and Republican financier Art Pope teamed up in support a proposed constitutional amendment for nonpartisan redistricting.

Advocates concede that it’s not possible to completely remove politics. But they want to try.

“We think the worst behavior can be reined in to restore faith in the process,Celina Stewart, director of advocacy and litigation of the League of Women Voters, told reporters in a conference call Wednesday.

Jim Morrill, who grew up near Chicago, covers state and local politics. He’s worked at the Observer since 1981 and taught courses on North Carolina politics at UNC Charlotte and Davidson College.