A year after Democratic justices on the North Carolina Supreme Court said new maps of the state’s legislative and congressional districts were partisan gerrymanders that violated the state constitution, newly elected Republicans on the court reversed course Friday and said the court lacked jurisdiction. Flip those maps.
The practical effect is to force the Republican-controlled state legislature to strip state Senate and congressional district boundaries of the court-ordered lines used in last November’s elections and draw new maps to favor the 2024 elections.
Reversing such a recent decision by the court is a highly unusual move, especially on a key constitutional issue where no facts have changed. In an opinion split along party lines 5 to 2, the new Republican majority of justices said the court lacked the power to strike down partisan maps drawn by state legislatures.
“Our Constitution expressly reserves the power of redistricting to the General Assembly subject to express limitations in its text,” Chief Justice Brian Newby wrote for the majority. “If this Court were to create such a limitation, there would be no judicially discernible or manageable standard by which to adjudicate such claims.”
For some legal experts, legal reasoning was overshadowed by a different message: In politically charged cases, the deciding factor is not the law or legal precedent, but which party has a majority on the court.
“If you think the previous state Supreme Court was wrong, we have the means to change it, like a constitutional amendment,” said Joshua A. Douglas said in an interview. “But changing judges should not cause such a sea change in the rule of law, because then precedent no longer has any value, and judges are really politicians.”
The state court issued two other rulings overturning decisions that limited the legislature’s ability to limit voting rights. First, the justices reconsidered and reversed an earlier court’s ruling, again along party lines, that the voter ID law passed by a Republican majority in the Legislature violated the state constitution’s equal protection clause.
Second, the court said the lower court “misapplied the law and overlooked facts critical to its ruling” when it struck down a state law denying the right to vote to those who have served prison terms on felony charges but have not yet been released on parole. , probation or other court restrictions.
The lower court said the requirement was rooted in an earlier law written to deny African Americans the right to vote, a decision the justices said was wrong.
The North Carolina cases reflect a national trend in which states electing their judges — Ohio, Kentucky, Kansas, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and others — have turned races for high court seats into multimillion-dollar political battles, and their judges’ rulings are watched. Through a deeply partisan lens.
Such political comedy was once mostly limited to confirmation battles for seats on the US Supreme Court. But as the nation’s partisan divide has deepened and federal courts have sent questions on issues like abortion and affirmative action to the states, choosing who will decide state legal battles has become an increasingly open political battle.
Moore v. Friday’s ruling in the gerrymandering case, known as Harper, came after partisan elections in November for two Supreme Court seats shifted the seven-member court’s political balance from 4 to 3 Democrats to 5 to 2 Republicans.
A Democratic-controlled court ruled along party lines in February 2022 that both state legislative maps and congressional district maps approved by Republican legislatures violated the state constitution’s guarantees of free speech, free elections, free assembly, and equal protection.
A lower court later reviewed the congressional map for use in the November elections, but the dispute over the state Senate map, which GOP leaders redrawn, bubbled back to the state Supreme Court last winter. In one of its last acts, the court’s Democratic majority threw out the GOP’s state Senate map and ordered it redraw. The court then reaffirmed its earlier order A long comment.
Ordinarily, that would have ended the matter. But after a new Republican majority was elected to the court, GOP legislative leaders demanded The judges rehearse that Not just the argument over the redrawn Senate map, but the entire case.
Friday’s ruling followed a brief retrial of the gerrymander case in mid-March.
Like the majority-Democrat court ruling before it, the latest ruling on gerrymandering could have a profound impact on North Carolina’s political landscape and perhaps the nation.
North Carolina voters are almost evenly split between the two major parties; Donald J. Trump carried the state in 2020 with 49.9 percent of the vote. But the original map of congressional districts approved by the GOP legislature in 2021 — then governed as a partisan gerrymander — could have given Republicans at least 10 of the state’s 14 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Using a congressional map drawn last year by a court-appointed special master, seven congressional seats were awarded to each party in the November election. Friday’s decision would allow the GOP Legislature to approve a new map through its first one, giving state Republicans — and slim Republicans in the U.S. House — a chance to pick up at least three seats.