WASHINGTON — Officials in North Carolina have two weeks to redraw the state’s legislative district maps following a court’s decision Tuesday that strikes down the current districts for “extreme partisan gerrymandering” intended to benefit Republicans in the state’s General Assembly.
The trial court judges, who ruled 3-0, wrote, the maps “deprive North Carolina citizens of the right to vote for General Assembly members in elections that are conducted freely and honestly to ascertain, fairly and truthfully, the will of the people.”
“Voters are not freely choosing their representatives. Rather, representatives are choosing their voters. It is not the will of the people that is fairly ascertained through extreme partisan gerrymandering. Rather, it is the will of the map drawers that prevails,” the court also wrote.
Specifically, the court found: “The effect of these carefully crafted partisan maps is that, in all but the most unusual election scenarios, the Republican Party will control a majority of both chambers of the General Assembly. In other words, the Court finds that in many election environments, it is the carefully crafted maps, and not the will of the voters, that dictate the election outcomes in a significant number of legislative districts and, ultimately, the majority control of the General Assembly.”
State lawmakers now have until September 18 to draw new legislative districts.
Additionally, the entire process must be conducted in full public view, including that all map-drawing be done at public hearings with any relevant computer screen visible to legislatures and observers, the court also ordered Tuesday.
The case was brought by Common Cause, a watchdog group, after Republicans in the state government redrew the maps for legislative districts in 2017. The case is a challenge brought under North Carolina state law asserting the partisan redistricting violated the North Carolina Constitution. It is therefore not affected by other court rulings challenging partisan gerrymandering under federal law and not likely to be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Our heads are spinning here in North Carolina,” Bob Phillips, the Executive Director of Common Cause North Carolina said in a press briefing call with reporters. “This is a huge win for the voters of North Carolina.”
The state court judges found the way the majority-Republican General Assembly redrew legislative district maps in 2017 violated the rights of voters under the state Constitution’s Equal Protection and Freedom of Assembly Clauses.
“The 2017 Enacted Maps, as drawn, do not permit voters to freely choose their representative, but rather representatives are choosing voters based upon sophisticated partisan sorting,” the judges wrote.
North Carolina state Senate Leader Phil Berger, a Republican, issued a statement on the court’s decision, saying “We disagree with the court’s ruling as it contradicts the Constitution and binding legal precedent, but we intend to respect the court’s decision and finally put this divisive battle behind us,” he wrote, adding “It’s time to move on.”
“To end this matter once and for all, we will follow the court’s instruction and move forward with adoption of a nonpartisan map,” Berger also said in the statement.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in two challenges to partisan redistricting in two different states, that the federal courts do not have the authority to block the district lines drawn up by state lawmakers, no matter how partisan the motivation behind the maps might be.
More: Supreme Court says federal courts cannot strike down partisan gerrymandering
Chief Justice John Roberts stated that federal courts do not have jurisdiction to rule on such political questions. It is up to lawmakers to deal with such issues, Roberts wrote on behalf of the court’s 5-4 conservative majority.
With that, the U.S. Supreme Court left the door open for state courts to rule on the issued involving partisan redistricting that come up under state law. Because Tuesday’s ruling is under North Carolina law, it is a virtual certainty that it will not be reviewed on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Contributing: Richard Wolf