Supreme Court temporarily blocks Stanford professor’s election districts for Wake and Mecklenburg

Updated: Feb. 7, 2018 at 2:26 PM EST
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RALEIGH, NC (Anne Blythe | The News and Observer) - The U.S. Supreme Court temporarily blocked a Stanford University law professor's election districts for state General Assembly seats in Wake and Mecklenburg counties while leaving his maps in place in six other counties while lawmakers appeal a three-judge panel's ruling.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who hears emergency requests from North Carolina, agreed to partially grant the petition for emergency relief days before candidates are set to file for office.

The order was released early Tuesday evening, and does not elaborate on why election districts for North Carolina's two largest urban counties were the only two the court blocked.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito noted they would have blocked the ruling in full, while Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor would not have granted the stay, according to the three-paragraph order.

The high court's decision brings more clarity to the district lines that will be used for state Senate and House seats in 2018.

It comes six days before the filing period opens for candidates seeking a General Assembly seat.

The district lines drawn by Nathaniel Persily of Stanford University altered nine legislative districts adopted by lawmakers in 2017 to comply with a 2016 court ruling. In 2016, federal judges ruled that 28 of the state's districts used for electing General Assembly members were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.

After the General Assembly adopted new maps in August 2017, challengers argued that some of the districts still were gerrymandered to weaken the overall influence of black voters. They also argued that some of the districts in urban counties were altered mid-decade when they did not have to be, a violation of the state Constitution.

Republicans argued that questions about altering districts mid-decade belonged in state court, not federal court.

James Wynn, a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge on the panel, told attorneys during court hearings last year that, indeed, the federal courts had limited power when it came to state constitutional issues. But Wynn added that if the federal court ordered a remedy that required the altering of districts that had not been declared racial gerrymanders, there should be some leeway for the redrawing of those.

"Finally, after years of litigation, North Carolinians will be able to elect their state legislators from districts that do not discriminate against voters based on their race," Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice who represents plaintiffs in the case, said in a statement after the order was released. "This decision represents a major victory for all North Carolinians who value fair elections and democratic principles."

Back to state court?

Riggs, who has worked on most of the redistricting challenges since 2011, noted the large sums of taxpayer dollars that have been spent by Republicans over their district lines.

"But now we'll finally have districts that do not segregate voters on the basis of race," Riggs added. "And despite this long and arduous journey, there are courageous people, like the plaintiffs in this case, who have not hesitated to stand up against every effort to abuse our democracy and unlawfully divide voters based on race."

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice also represents challengers who filed a lawsuit shortly after the 2011 plans were adopted, and though that case has been reviewed twice by the U.S. Supreme Court it now is back in state court and could be a place where judges take up question of whether districts in Wake and Mecklenburg County needed to be altered in order to avoid violating the state Constitution.

Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, described the ruling as a mixed bag, but one that would give clarity to candidates and voters about what the election districts would look like in the coming year.

"We are thankful that the Supreme Court has blocked the lower court's attempt to rule on state law," Woodhouse said. "This is a partial restoration of the legislature's sovereign rights to draw its districts. Of course, we're upset the Supreme Court didn't extend its order to the federal law."

Rep. David Lewis, the Harnett County Republican who leads the redistricting committee in the House, made similar comments on Twitter.

"We will be conducting the 2018 elections in General Assembly-drawn Congressional seats and nearly all General Assembly-drawn state House seats," Lewis added.

North Carolina has been described in court documents and by legal analysts as one of the most gerrymandered states in the country.

Many lawsuits have been filed since Republicans gained control of both General Assembly chambers in 2010, a victory that gave them the lead role in drawing new election lines after the census.

Lots of redistricting cases to track

It can be difficult to keep up with all the different challenges since some of the lawsuits have focused on state House and Senate election districts and others have been about congressional districts.

Some of the arguments have been about whether lawmakers used race too dominantly to draw the lines, weakening the influence of African-American voters who often support Democrats.

More recent cases have challenged congressional districts as blatant partisan gerrymanders, and a panel of federal judges ruled that lawmakers, indeed, violated free speech and equal protection rights in 2016 when announcing that the lines had been drawn to give Republicans a 10 to 3 advantage in a state that elected a Democratic governor in 2016.

For years, parties in power have used the process to try to keep and gain seats in state legislative bodies and in Congress.

But as mapmaking technologies become more sophisticated, allowing mapmakers to draw district lines to pick up or exclude one household, voting rights advocates have asked the courts to intervene in states where Republicans have control, and where Democrats do, too.

Currently Republicans dominate the N.C. General Assembly with numbers that allow them to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's vetoes. They hold 35 of the 50 Senate seats and 75 of the 120 House seats.

A previous draft of Persily's plan appeared to make it easier for Democrats to defeat Republican incumbents in four House races and two Senate races, but it's unclear how the temporary stay for his lines in Wake and Mecklenburg counties will affect those numbers. Persily redrew just a fraction of the state's 170 legislative districts, mostly in urban counties that tend to favor Democrats. Most of the districts drawn in August favor Republicans, according to a News & Observer analysis.

Ending veto-proof majorities could put Republicans in a position of having to negotiate with Cooper and some Democrats on occasion.

To take back the General Assembly, Democrats would need to flip 16 House seats and 11 Senate seats in November.