On Tuesday, a three-judge panel delivered a major blow against Republican gerrymandering when it struck down North Carolina's state Senate and state House districts for violating the rights of Democratic voters. In the Senate, 21 of 50 districts must be redrawn, and 56 of 120 House districts were also invalidated.
The state court ruled that these maps, designed to entrench Republican rule, ran afoul of the state constitution’s guarantee of free and fair elections. These illegal districts were so extreme that they helped Republicans to maintain their legislative majorities in 2018's elections even though Democratic candidates won more votes statewide. If fairer districts are implemented for 2020, they could put Democrats in striking distance of a majority in one or both chambers.
Importantly, because this case was litigated solely under North Carolina’s state constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this year that the U.S. Constitution prohibits challenges to partisan gerrymandering did not present an obstacle to the plaintiffs. And for the same reason, this decision should be insulated from federal review, much like a ruling from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court last year that replaced a Republican congressional gerrymander with a much fairer map.
Republican legislative leaders unexpectedly announced they will not appeal the ruling, meaning North Carolina will soon have new legislative maps. The lower court gave the GOP-run legislature until Sept. 18 to draw legal districts for use in 2020, but ever since they gained full control of state government in 2013, Republicans have demonstrated a flagrant disregard for the rule of law that should weigh heavily as the courts decide whether to grant the GOP another shot.
In handing down their ruling, the judges announced that they would immediately appoint a nonpartisan expert to assist them in reviewing any replacement maps to ensure they pass muster—or to draw maps of their own should the GOP’s efforts prove unconstitutional yet again.
In fact, during the past six years, Republicans have lost nearly two dozen lawsuits due to their undemocratic attempts to seize power from the public, including repeated losses in cases concerning gerrymandering. Those defeats even include a previous lawsuit over these very same legislative maps, which were redrawn for the 2018 election cycle after they were twice struck for discriminating against black voters.
Following that case, newly revealed unveiled documents from a deceased GOP redistricting consultant showed that Republicans lied to a federal court to hide their discriminatory intent when they redrew the legislative maps in 2017. Unsurprisingly, the plaintiffs in this latest case had previously said they will petition the courts not to give Republican legislators a third crack at drawing the lines due to their ongoing deception, and it's possible that, on appeal, they could ask the appellate courts to require court-drawn maps. (Also note that under the state constitution, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper would not be able to veto any new maps passed by the legislature.)
The GOP's decision not to appeal comes in the context of North Carolina's Supreme Court having a 6-1 Democratic majority thanks to Democratic gains following the 2016 and 2018 elections, meaning they would have been very unlikely to succeed. Consequently, Tuesday's decision will remain in place, and if Republicans try to draw new replacement gerrymanders, those maps would likely run into the same state Supreme Court that appears very hostile to the GOP's gerrymanders.
While this case only concerns the maps in one state, every state constitution has provisions similar to North Carolina's that could be used to challenge partisan gerrymanders so long as there’s a receptive and fair-minded state Supreme Court majority to hear such a case. This ruling therefore underscores the importance of supreme court elections in key swing states next year, including Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Progressive victories in these races would go a long way toward blocking the GOP's lopsided control over redistricting as we head into the next round of redistricting following the 2020 census.
This story has been updated.