By Bryan Anderson & Travis Fain, WRAL statehouse reporters
The North Carolina Supreme Court on Friday voted to strike down new voting maps Republicans passed in November.
The high court issued a 4-3 decision split along ideological lines. It said Republicans must submit new voting maps to a lower court by 5 p.m. Feb. 18, where they must then be approved by a three-judge panel by noon on Feb. 23. If the new legislative and congressional boundaries are not submitted in time, the judges would be tasked with selecting a plan.
“When a districting plan systematically makes it harder for one group of voters to elect a governing majority than another group of voters of equal size, the General Assembly unconstitutionally infringes upon that voter’s fundamental right to vote,” the four registered Democrats on the state Supreme Court wrote in their order.
The voting maps passed in November strongly favored the GOP, with the party slated to win 10 or 11 of the 14 U.S. House seats up for grabs in the 2022 election. The new state House and Senate maps also gave Republicans a better chance of securing veto-proof majorities.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper praised the high court’s decision rejecting the legislative and congressional maps, writing on Twitter: “A healthy democracy requires free elections and the NC Supreme Court is right to order a redraw of unconstitutionally gerrymandered districts. More work remains and any legislative redraw must reflect the full intent of this decision.”
State Sen. Ralph Hise, a western North Carolina Republican who co-led the mapdrawing process and was named in the lawsuit, criticized the court’s decision, arguing that the justices set a precedent that will be difficult to unwind.
“Democratic judges, lawyers, and activists have worked in concert to transform the Supreme Court into a policymaking body to impose their political ideas,” Hise said in a statement.
Chief Justice Paul Newby, a registered Republican, dissented, saying that it is up to voters and lawmakers to prevent partisan maps from being carried out. His GOP colleagues, Phil Berger Jr. and Tamara Barringer also opposed the court’s decision.
“Unless and until the people alter the law to either limit or prohibit the practice of partisan gerrymandering, this Court is without any satisfactory or manageable legal standard and thus must refuse to resolve such a claim,” Newby wrote.
In a statement, the state Democratic Party called the ruling “a critical and momentous step towards maps that protect the fundamental right to vote.”
Michael Whatley, chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, said in a statement, “We are extremely disappointed that the four Democrats on the Supreme Court have chosen political expediency over reason in order to invalidate the maps drawn by the NC General Assembly. This blatantly partisan decision flies in the face of centuries of judicial and legislative precedent and directly contradicts any plain reading of the North Carolina Constitution.”
The high court in December halted candidate filing and voted to push back the primary by 10 weeks from March 8 to May 17 to ensure the case could work its way through the court system. A panel of Wake County Superior Court judges, including two registered Republicans and one registered Democrat, unanimously voted last month to keep the maps in place.
The state Supreme Court’s ruling says the state should expect to have districts finalized by Feb. 23 and primaries held as planned on May 17.
“We will work to comply with the schedule and administer elections in the new districts,” said Pat Gannon, a spokesman for the State Board of Elections.
Though the three-judge panel found evidence of “pro-Republican partisan redistricting” that could generate election results that are “incompatible with democratic principles,” the judges determined they didn’t have the power to rein in the legislature’s mapmaking powers.
The state Supreme Court then agreed to swiftly hear the voting groups’ appeal.
The core issue in the redistricting case was less about whether GOP lawmakers drew voting maps meant to boost their political power. Rather, the focus was whether state courts are permitted to do anything about it.
Voting rights groups challenging the maps argued that the boundaries Republicans drew violated residents’ rights under the state constitution to a free election and equal protection under the law.
Allison Riggs, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, also said the maps should be struck down because they dilute the voting power of racial minorities, particularly Black voters who overwhelmingly choose to elect Democrats.
Riggs called the court’s ruling on Friday “an unequivocal win for North Carolina’s Black voters who were most harmed by this extreme partisan gerrymander.”
Republicans have noted Black voters are not a monolith and that they did not use racial data when drawing the maps.
“There was no racial data used, so it was not possible to discriminate against minorities,” said Phil Strach, an attorney representing GOP lawmakers.
Only one of the three registered Republicans on the high court, Chief Justice Paul Newby, spoke during oral arguments. He noted a “fair” election isn’t explicitly afforded to voters.
Strach argued the state constitution’s free election and equal protection clauses do not address partisan gerrymandering. He also warned the four Democratic justices on the state Supreme Court who questioned him that they could be seen as legislating from the bench if they struck down the maps.
“The damage to this court has already begun,” Strach told the justices. “The mere possibility that this court might strike down the redistricting plans has already led some in the public to start treating the court like a legislature, not a court.”