Supreme Court Orders New Look at North Carolina Gerrymandering Case

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Supreme Court told a panel of judges to reconsider a ruling that would force North Carolina to redraw its congressional voting map to give Republicans less of a partisan advantage.

The justices ordered a new look based on their week-old ruling in a similar case from Wisconsin. That decision said Democratic voters hadn’t shown they have legal standing to challenge the state’s Republican-drawn assembly map.

North Carolina Democrats are trying to invalidate a map that gave Republicans 10 of the 13 U.S. House seats in the 2016 election with 53 percent of the overall congressional vote. Democrats say fairer lines would produce something closer to representational parity.

A three-judge panel said that North Carolina lawmakers were “motivated by invidious partisan intent” and that the map “perfectly achieved the General Assembly’s partisan objectives.”

It’s not clear the Wisconsin ruling will force the North Carolina court to reach a different result. In the Wisconsin decision, the Supreme Court said the voters’ primary legal argument -- that their voting clout was being improperly diluted -- had to be pressed on a district-by-district basis.

The North Carolina lawsuit involves a wider variety of legal claims. And unlike the Wisconsin case, the suit is being pressed by voters in each of the state’s congressional districts as well as the Democratic Party.

The lower court said the North Carolina map violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause and First Amendment. The panel also said the North Carolina map runs afoul of the Constitution’s elections clause, which guarantees “the people” the right to select their representatives.

Still, the order to reconsider the case is at least a temporary victory for Republicans, giving them a new set of arguments for upholding the original map. Republican lawmakers told the Supreme Court the ruling "would effectively transfer the redistricting authority away from the state legislatures and to the federal courts in ways that are antithetical to constitutional text and two centuries of experience."

Democrats point to a comment by North Carolina State Representative David Lewis, a Republican who helped lead the redistricting effort. Lewis said at a 2016 hearing that he supported drawing the map with 10 Republican-heavy districts “because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and 2 Democrats.”

North Carolina’s voting districts have been a near-constant source of litigation in recent decades. The Supreme Court last year said an earlier map relied too heavily on race in fashioning two congressional districts.

The case is Rucho v. Common Cause, 17-1295.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.