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RALEIGH — Another major U.S. Supreme Court decision in a North Carolina voting rights case is expected to reshape coming redistricting court battles and how the state draws its districts in the years ahead.
The high court handed down a 5-3 decision Monday, upholding last year’s federal district court ruling that the legislature relied too heavily on race in drawing two of its congressional districts in 2011.
All eight members of the Supreme Court agreed that the state used unlawful racial gerrymandering in drawing the 1st congressional district, which stretched from deep in eastern North Carolina to the City of Durham. The court split 5-3 on whether the same applied to 12th district which included parts of both Greensboro and Charlotte.
The immediate impact of the ruling won’t require new districts to be drawn since, in response to the lower court’s ruling, the legislature redrew the two districts in February of last year.
But voting rights advocates say they expect the latest decision to affect future redistricting efforts as well as cases still pending in federal courts that could ultimately require new districts by 2018.
Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said the majority decision, written by Justice Elena Kagan, stand out for its clarity.
“What I found most impressive is just the clarity of the opinion, so in that sense I think it will be widely cited and followed in the future,” said Earls, who has been involved in crafting the legal strategy for several of the state’s recent voting rights cases.
She said the ruling gives strong guidance to legislatures on how they can draw lines. “In terms of the impact I think it means going forward that states can’t hide behind the Voting Rights Act and justify using race and putting voters into districts because of their race whether they are doing that for partisan reasons or not,” Earls said.
The decision got at two key legal points, she said, over the legislature’s strategy, which packed black voters into some districts to reduce their impact in others.
When the districts were drawn, legislators said they were required to do so by the Voting Rights Act. The new decision, Earls said, is “answering explicitly the fact that the Voting Rights Act does not require a jurisdiction to draw 50 percent black district wherever possible.”
It also makes clear, she said, that party and race can be intertwined. “It’s unconstitutional if race is used even if ultimately there were partisan goals,” Earls said.
Monday’s decision drew instant reaction.
Gov. Roy Cooper released a statement saying he was pleased with the ruling.
“North Carolina voters deserve a level playing field and fair elections, and I’m glad the Supreme Court agrees. The North Carolina Republican legislature tried to rig Congressional elections by drawing unconstitutional districts that discriminated against African Americans, and that’s wrong.”
State GOP leaders and members of the legislative leadership put out statements echoing the dissent in the case authored by Justice Samuel Alito, who accused the majority of “junking” a rule set in a prior suit over the same district requiring alternative maps to prove the linkage between race and partisanship.
“This is not the treatment of precedent that state legislatures have the right to expect from this Court,” Alito wrote in his dissent.
NCGOP Chairman Robin Hayes said the court was making it difficult for legislatures to draw districts.
“The courts have put legislatures in an impossible situation, with their constantly changing standards. It is also important to note that this ruling does not impact our current congressional map, which we also believe is fair and legal,” Hayes said.
Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, who co-chaired the redistricting process in 2011, called the ruling inconsistent, but said it would at least provide some certainty going forward.
“While we prefer consistent rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court over the shifting legal positions criticized by Justice Alito in his dissent, we are satisfied today’s decision brings certainty to North Carolina voters that the current congressional districts (drawn in 2016) will remain in place for upcoming elections.”
Amy Auth, spokesperson for Senate leader Phil Berger also pointed to Alito’s dissent.
“We have the utmost respect for the Supreme Court, but it is challenging for our lawmakers to draw congressional districts that the courts will accept when the courts regularly change the rules state legislatures must follow when drawing them,” Auth said in a statement.
Further impacts coming
When the U.S. District Court struck down the congressional map in early 2016, which is the decision that the Supreme Court just confirmed, legislators hastily drafted the current congressional district map. But that map also has been challenged.
Earls said with a trial challenging the current maps a little more than a month away, it’s too soon to say what maps will be in place next year.
The trial in that challenge, League of Women Voters v. Rucho, opens June 26 in federal court in Greensboro.
Earls said the court’s ruling on Monday should bolster the case that although the legislature redrew the districts with partisan rather than racial intent, the outcome was nearly the same. She said the dissenters’ demand in Monday’s Supreme Court opinion for “alternative maps” to show that was answered in the 2016 election.
“The elephant in the room is the 2016 districts,” she said. “Those are districts that have the same political outcome, a 10-3 map,” Earls said. “The 2016 districts are the very demonstration map that the dissent said the plaintiffs needed to produce to show violation (of the Voting Rights Act).”
Earls said the decision in Cooper v. Harris should also have an impact on legislative redistricting cases since the state’s defense in those cases is the same as the one rejected by all eight members of the court on Monday. The high court could signal a move in two cases focusing on the legislative districts as early as next week.
Earls also took exception to legislative leaders claiming great shifts in the law are making it hard to draw districts.
“The impression they are creating that the law is changing all the time, and saying ‘we can’t follow it,’ ” she said.
“No, what happen was they tried to advance a patently false view of what the Voting Rights Act required, using the Voting Rights Act as a way to subvert and hurt black voters. That’s what they tried to get away with and the Supreme Court said, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ ”
The Supreme Court decision is the second major move this month regarding North Carolina election law.
Last week, the court let stand a 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, that threw out the legislature’s 2013 set of elections law changes saying provisions drafted for Voter ID, ending same-day registration and other changes were done to reduce African-American turnout.
Legislative leaders said they are discussion a new Voter ID law and other potential changes in election laws but have not decided on the timing.
Lewis, who co-chairs the House Elections and Ethics Law Committee, said he would like to see new legislation in place for the 2018 election cycle.