Yesterday, a federal district court once again struck down North Carolina’s Republican-drawn congressional map as a partisan gerrymander in violation of the Constitution. This ruling reaffirmed the court’s January decision, which the Supreme Court vacated and told them to reconsider in June under a different legal theory of who has standing to sue. Indeed, while the Supreme Court said each district would have to be challenged individually instead of on a statewide basis, the lower court held that Democratic plaintiffs had satisfied that requirement.
udge Wynn’s opinion is 294 pages long. It offers three separate arguments for why partisan gerrymanders violate the Constitution. It also spends dozens of pages going district-by-district through the state’s congressional map, often using color graphics to demonstrate how North Carolina’s Republicans drew district lines to “pack” Democratic voters into already-solid blue districts or “crack” them into Republican districts where their votes would be wasted.
The highlights of Wynn’s opinion, however, are his many quotes from and citations to First Amendment decisions championed by Republican members of the Supreme Court. “The Constitution does not allow elected officials to enact laws that distort the marketplace of political ideas so as to intentionally favor certain political beliefs, parties, or candidates and disfavor others,” Wynn states early in his opinion. He then proves this statement by quoting statements from Republican judges like Chief Justice John Roberts, Thomas, and Kavanaugh.
“Those who govern should be the last people to help decide who should govern,” Wynn writes, quoting Roberts’ opinion in McCutcheon v. FEC, which held that rich donors can launder donations to candidates through committees set up by a political party.
“The First Amendment operates as a vital guarantee of democratic self-government,” Wynn proclaims, quoting an dissenting opinion by Judge Kavanaugh that would have declared net neutrality unconstitutional.
“‘The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market,’ Wynn writes, lifting from Justice Thomas’ opinion in NIFLA, which held that abortion providers enjoy fewer First Amendment rights than abortion opponents, “and the people lose when the government is the one deciding which ideas should prevail.”
Importantly, the lower court may soon decide to require new districts this year. It also must weigh whether to give the GOP legislature a third shot at drawing a legal map this decade after their first one was struck down for racial gerrymandering in 2016 and their second version over excessive partisanship earlier this year. That’s important because Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper lacks the power to veto congressional redistricting, meaning a court-drawn map would likely be much fairer than whatever Republican legislators would come up with.
A court-drawn map could help Democrats win anywhere from two to five more seats. By contrast, Democrats have almost no hope of winning a majority of seats this year under the existing gerrymander shown at the top of this story, even though it’s a Democratic wave year in an evenly divided swing state.
Unfortunately, it is far from guaranteed that this ruling will lead to new districts this year or even be upheld at all. Republicans on the Supreme Court can’t stay this ruling pending appeal if the liberal justices disagree, thanks to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement. But if Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed to the Supreme Court, Republicans would have a majority of hard-right justices who have no qualms about letting Republicans gerrymander to no end, meaning the GOP is likely to succeed when their appeal likely reaches the high court in the 2018-2019 term.
Consequently, there’s a very short window of time the lower court has to order the use of new districts and have that ruling actually survive. But even if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns this ruling and keeps the current gerrymander in place, there’s still a way to potentially force fairer districts by 2020 by electing Democrat Anita Earls to the North Carolina Supreme Court. Electing Earls could finally prompt the state court to follow Pennsylvania’s lead and use North Carolina’s state constitution to strike down gerrymandering, likely insulating it from U.S. Supreme Court review.
The decision has national implications, too. The U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled a state’s redistricting unconstitutional on partisan grounds. The New York Times explains:
The ruling sets up a delicate tactical question for the Supreme Court, which has never ruled a partisan gerrymander to be unconstitutional, passing up three separate opportunities to do so in its last term. With the retirement of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy at the end of July, the court is now divided between four conservatives who have expressed skepticism about the court’s ability to tinker with political maps, and four more liberal justices who have argued that it has that ability.
A 4-to-4 vote would leave the lower court’s ruling intact.
“All this because one party is terrified of allowing fair elections in the state of North Carolina,” Jeff Rose, chair of the Buncombe County Democratic Party, wrote in a Facebook post. The 2011 maps split Buncombe and the city of Asheville in the western mountains between NC-10 and 11, made NC-11 uncompetitive for Democrats, and Democrat Heath Shuler retired. Rep. Mark Meadows, leader of the House Freedom Caucus, has held the seat for Republicans since 2013. Maps that put Asheville back into NC-11 could put Meadows’s NC seat back in play in 2020.
A lot more districts could be in play across the country after the 2021 redistricting (if not before) if this ruling stands.