NC court strikes down state legislative districts as unconstitutional

A state court in North Carolina unanimously struck down Republican-led efforts to maintain state legislative districts on Tuesday, holding that they amount to unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders that violate the state’s Constitution.

The court held that state House and Senate maps enacted in 2017 are “significantly tainted in that they unconstitutionally deprive every citizen of the right to elections for members of the General Assembly conducted freely and honestly to ascertain, fairly and truthfully, the will of the People,” according to the opinion.

The General Assembly had a “partisan intent to create legislative districts that perpetuated a Republican-controlled General Assembly,” the court found, meaning that “in all but the most unusual election scenarios, the Republican party will control a majority of both chambers of the General Assembly.”

The court also required that new district maps be drawn for the 2020 election, with certain specific considerations taken into account.

The battle in North Carolina demonstrated how the fight over partisan gerrymandering is shifting from the federal courts to the state level.

The US Supreme Court ruled in June that it would not stop districts from being drawn in a way that favors the party in power.

However, Democrats have now notched two significant victories at the state level: Last year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the state’s congressional districts had been drawn in a way that violated Pennsylvania’s Constitution. Now, in North Carolina, a top Republican state legislative leader told local reporters in a statement that the GOP will not appeal the state court’s ruling against state House and Senate districts there.

The result is a 2020 election in which North Carolina — already a swing state in presidential elections — is likely to see control over its full state government also on the ballot, with new districts in place and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper up for reelection.

Bob Phillips — the executive director of the voting rights group Common Cause North Carolina, one of the plaintiffs in the case — cheered the court’s decision.

“The court has enjoined the use of a majority of districts,” Phillips said. “We are thrilled that North Carolina voters will finally have an opportunity in the 2020 election to vote for state legislators under fair maps.”

Election law expert Rick Hasen, of the University of California-Irvine, called the ruling “a huge development that will put the Republican-led North Carolina General Assembly in a tough position.”

“Because this is decided as a matter of state constitutional law, it would be very hard to find a federal issue to take this to the United States Supreme Court for reversal,” he added.

While the US Supreme Court recently declined to step in to decide a separate challenge to federal maps in the state, the North Carolina court observed that provisions of state constitutions “could provide standards and guidance for state courts to apply.”

The North Carolina Democratic Party, registered Democratic voters and Common Cause brought the lawsuit last year. They claimed that North Carolina Republicans’ mapmaker had manipulated district boundaries to minimize the representational rights of Democratic voters.