North Carolina’s long history with partisan gerrymandering continues as the state’s Supreme Court deemed the most recent congressional map unconstitutional in a 4-3 decision.
The N.C. Supreme Court released the outcome of their ruling on Harper v. Hall Friday afternoon. The seven justices were split along party lines to determine whether or not the current maps were “unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt” due to illegal partisan gerrymandering.
“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 Court wrote in a statement.
The Court also wrote in an order that “the General Assembly must not diminish or dilute any individual's vote on the basis of partisan affiliation” in compliance with limitations in the state constitution applicable to redistricting plans. That order also deemed the maps unconstitutional under the free elections clause, equal protection clause, free speech clause and freedom of assembly clause of the state constitution.
The congressional map is being entirely redrawn because North Carolina gained a seat in reapportionment as a result of the 2020 Census.
The oral arguments at the Supreme Court centered on defining what level of partisan gerrymandering is allowed under the North Carolina Constitution.
The plaintiffs argued that “the leaders already in power manipulate the district lines to subvert the will of the people,” while the Republican defendants claimed that the General Assembly “is allowed to draw districts for partisan advantage” and that there is no clear division “between what partisan intent and lean is allowed and what partisan intent and lean is not allowed.”
The defendants also said the courts should not deem the maps unconstitutional because then people will view the court as a “partisan actor.”
The plaintiffs countered this statement, saying that the court “is the only check [of gerrymandering] here. Elections can’t provide a check, the governor can’t provide a check, amendments aren’t available and it will only get worse if this court gives the General Assembly a blank check [to gerrymander].”
The Republican-controlled state legislature passed the congressional map in question in November. As drawn, the map would have likely helped Republicans secure at least two additional seats in the state’s delegation to Washington, D.C.
The three Republican justices on the Supreme Court dissented from the ruling, writing that the ruling, "violates separation of powers by effectively placing responsibility for redistricting with the judicial branch, not the legislative branch as expressly provided in our constitution."
"By choosing to hold that partisan gerrymandering violates the North Carolina Constitution and by devising its own remedies, there appears to be no limit to this Court's power," Chief Justice Paul Newby wrote in response to the dissenters.
The legislature now has until Feb. 18 to create new maps and send them to a lower court, which would then select a remedial plan. The trial court will approve redistricting plans by noon on Feb. 23.
The legal proceedings have impacted election filing in the state.
On Dec. 8, 2021, the North Carolina Supreme Court suspended candidate filing for all offices for the 2022 primary election and pushed the election date from March 8 to May 17 due to lawsuits challenging the maps.
In January, Republican state lawmakers voted in favor of House Bill 605 which would have further delayed the 2022 primary elections to June 7. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper vetoed the bill Jan. 28, claiming that the bill was an additional attempt by Republican legislators to control the election timeline and undermine the voting process. Cooper has no veto power over the Congressional map.
“The constitutionality of congressional and legislative districts is now in the hands of the North Carolina Supreme Court and the Court should have the opportunity to decide how much time is needed to ensure that our elections are constitutional,” Cooper said in a statement.
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Kathryn Thomas is a Trinity junior and news editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.