RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) — The North Carolina Supreme Court on Monday night released its final decision in the case that sent back election maps to be redrawn because they were the product of extreme partisan gerrymandering.
This is the ruling that requires the General Assembly to create maps for congressional and state legislative districts that are devoid of partisan gerrymandering designed to give Republicans expanded or cemented control in Washington and Raleigh.
A 3-judge panel in Wake County Superior Court in early January had ruled that the legislature was guilty of extreme partisan gerrymandering but that, essentially, the state constitution gave lawmakers the responsibility to draw the maps and partisan gerrymandering wasn’t defined and couldn’t be addressed.
On Feb. 4 the NC Supreme Court, in a 4-3 vote along partisan lines, granted the appeal filed by the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters, the Harper group of plaintiffs and Common Cause.
The court has given the General Assembly a second chance to draw what it would consider fair voting maps, but legislators have been circumspect about how they would draw and approve the maps. They could release them as early as today and send them to committee and the full House and Senate in the next two days. Their deadline is Friday to submit new maps to the Wake County Superior Court panel of judges who first handled this case.
That court then would pass along these maps to the Supreme Court by Feb. 23 for final approval. Justices last week said they would appoint a special master to oversee this process and requested nominations for that role from all interested parties, but there has been no name announced.
Monday’s formal ruling is 217 pages under the title of “Harper v. Hall” that is full of legal analysis, history and the usual citations of previous court cases, authored by Associate Justice Robin Hudson of Greensboro and dissented by Chief Justice Paul Newby.
Hudson called the ruling “carrying out the most fundamental of our sacred duties: protecting the constitutional rights of the people of North Carolina from overreach by the General Assembly.”
In striking down the lower court’s ruling, the justices found that:
- The General Assembly’s power to redistrict is “not a delegation of unlimited power; the exercise of this power is subject to restrictions imposed by other constitutional provisions, including the Declaration of Rights.”
- The General Assembly infringes on voters’ fundamental rights when “on the basis of partisan affiliation, it deprives a voter of his or her right to substantially equal voting power, as established by the free elections clause and the equal protection clause in our Declaration of Rights.”
- The General Assembly’s 2021 maps are “partisan gerrymanders that on the basis of partisan affiliation substantially infringe upon plaintiffs’ fundamental right to equal voting power.”
“We hold that our constitution’s Declaration of Rights guarantees the equal power of each person’s voice in our government through voting in elections that matter. Partisan gerrymandering creates the same harm as malapportionment, which has previously been held to violate the state constitution: some peoples’ votes have more power than others,” Hudson wrote.
In his dissent Chief Justice Newby wrote that “unguided by the constitutional text, four members of this Court become policymakers. They wade into the political waters by mandating their approach to redistricting. They change the time-honored meaning of various portions of our constitution by inserting their interpretation to reach their desired outcome. They justify this activism because their understanding of certain constitutional provisions has ‘evolved over time.’ They lament that the people have not placed a provision in our constitution for a ‘citizen referendum’ and use the absence of such a provision to justify their judicial activism to amend our constitution. The majority dissenting says courts must protect constitutional rights. This is true. Courts are not, however, to judicially amend the constitution to create those rights. As explicitly stated in our constitution, the people alone have the authority to alter our foundational document, and the people have the final say. “
Evidence of gerrymandering
Justices said they didn’t hear evidence from the defendants to disprove what the trial court had asserted about the partisan gerrymandering that had occurred. This ruling cited Rep. Destin Hall’s testimony at trial that there were maps drawn in a private room and then transferred into the public drawing process. The data used is unknown. The maps were destroyed.
The ruling also included testimony from the trial court by Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University and an expert on redistricting, who described how the census had delivered to the state a 14th seat in Congress but that the redistricting didn’t place that seat in the areas of greatest growth, which were the Triangle area around Raleigh and Charlotte/Mecklenburg County.
”Based on Dr. Cooper’s analysis, the court observed that ‘[a]lthough North Carolina gained an additional congressional seat as a result of population growth that came largely from the Democratic-leaning Triangle (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) and the Charlotte metropolitan areas, the number of anticipated Democratic seats under the enacted map actually decreases, with only three anticipated Democratic seats, compared with the five seats that Democrats won in the 2020 election.” This decrease, the court observed, is enacted “by splitting the Democratic-leaning counties of Guilford, Mecklenburg, and Wake among three congressional districts each.” The court further noted that “[t]here was no population-based reason” for these splits.”
Guilford County at crux
Guilford County’s split from the 6th Congressional District, which consolidates the county with the city of Winston-Salem, into the 7th, 10th and 11th districts, all of which would be Republican-leaning, was at the heart of the argument, but the county’s representation also was included in analysis of districts for the state House and Senate and the “cracking and packing” philosophy of grouping voters.
The ruling pointed to 53 state House districts (out of 120), 23 Senate districts (out of 50) and 14 congressional districts (out of 14) that were the “result of intentional, pro-Republican partisan redistricting.”
Hudson summarizes like this: “It is the sincere hope of this Court that these new maps ensure that the channeling of ‘political power’ from the people to their representatives in government through elections, the central democratic process envisioned by our constitutional system, is done on equal terms so that ours is a ‘government of right’ that “originates from the people” and speaks with their voice.”