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N.C. Supreme Court strikes down GOP-drawn maps as illegal gerrymander

The North Carolina Supreme Court on Friday struck down the maps drawn by the Republican controlled Legislature and ordered lawmakers to create new ones by Feb. 18.

A 4-3 majority of the Supreme Court found that the state legislative and congressional maps were “unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt under the free elections clause, the equal protection clause, the free speech clause and the freedom of assembly clause of the North Carolina Constitution,” the order written by Democratic Justice Robin Hudson said.

The General Assembly will have to redraw maps and submit them by noon Feb. 18 to a three-judge panel in Superior Court for approval.

If the panel decides the General Assembly’s new maps don’t meet the court’s new standards, it can select maps submitted by the groups that sued the state. Whatever the trial court selects, the state or any of the challengers can appeal the decision by 5 p.m. Feb. 23. That’s the day before candidate filing is set to open again, so there is a chance North Carolina will see a repeat of what happened in December, when the courts shut down candidate filing — then reopened it, then shut it down again.

Because of the tight timeline, the Supreme Court only issued an order, not an opinion, meaning that it told the relevant groups what they had to do next but did not describe the full legal justifications underpinning the decision. The opinion will be submitted later, according to the document.
Chief Justice Paul Newby, a Republican elected in 2020, expressed his frustration with the decision in a snappy dissent, writing that the Democratic-majority court interpreted the constitution in such a way that left “no limits to this Court’s power.”

Since the state constitution does not put an explicit limit on partisan gerrymandering, Newby argued, the only ways to do so are by statute or a constitutional amendment. Both would require the legislature to act to limit its own authority to draw partisan maps.

Either the General Assembly takes the Supreme Court’s order and attempts to draw constitutional maps or takes the risk that the courts will choose maps submitted by the groups that sued. It will also have to submit the data it used to draw the maps and the methods used to measure partisan fairness.

The Supreme Court recommended, but did not require, five different metrics for measuring the partisan fairness of a map.

“​​To comply with the limitations contained in the North Carolina Constitution, which are applicable to redistricting plans, the General Assembly must not diminish or dilute any individual’s vote on the basis of partisan affiliation,” the majority wrote.

But Newby wrote those guidelines are “vague and undefined,” meaning only the court itself will be able to define the constitutionality of new maps.

“The question of how much partisan consideration is unconstitutional remains a mystery, as does what is meant by ‘substantially equal voting power on the basis of partisan affiliation,’” Newby wrote.

Democrats quickly praised and Republicans just as quickly denounced the decision.

"A healthy democracy requires free elections and the NC Supreme Court is right to order a redraw of unconstitutionally gerrymandered districts," Gov. Roy Cooper said in a statement. "More work remains and any legislative redraw must reflect the full intent of this decision."

"Democratic judges, lawyers, and activists have worked in concert to transform the Supreme Court into a policymaking body to impose their political ideas," said Sen. Ralph Hise, who co-chairs the Senate Redistricting Committee. "On this and other cases soon to come before them, the justices 'interpret the Constitution to mean what it would have said if they, instead of the Founding Fathers, had written it,' in the words of former justice Sam Ervin Jr. This perverse precedent, once set, will be nearly impossible to unwind, as monied interests line up to buy their own justices to set law favorable to them. I’m certain Democrats will come to regret it."