The North Carolina Supreme Court's new Republican majority granted a request from GOP lawmakers late on Friday and issued an order to rehear two major election law cases that, not even two months ago, saw the very same court strike down gerrymandered maps and a voter ID law for discriminating against Democrats and Black voters, respectively. Those rulings were issued by the prior Democratic majority, which Republicans ousted in last fall's elections.
In a blistering dissent, Democratic Justices Anita Earls and Mike Morgan (both of whom are Black) excoriated their five GOP colleagues (who are all white) for a "display of raw partisanship" that represents a "radical break with 205 years of history," referring to the year the court became an independent body in 1818. Authoring the dissent, Earls noted that the court had previously granted requests to rehear cases only two times out of 214 over the last 30 years.
The judicial principle that judges should respect their own courts' precedent, especially absent major factual differences between cases, predates the American republic. Republicans cited several state court decisions in an effort to validate their own, but Earls blasted their summation of these cases as "riddled with inaccuracies" and noted that these instances proved her point: Rehearings have only been granted in cases with specific errors in facts or applications of law and were limited in scope. Here, GOP petitioners here want nothing less than for the court to overturn the state constitution's guarantee that all voters share "substantially equal voting power."
The redistricting case established for the first time that partisan gerrymandering violates this provision of the state constitution, validating preliminary rulings issued early in 2022 that had blocked the GOP's new congressional gerrymander and parts of the legislative maps while the case proceeded. Lower court judges stepped in to draw a considerably fairer congressional map for temporary use last year, while GOP lawmakers passed tamer legislative maps that the high court allowed to stay in place while the case remained ongoing, although it ultimately struck down the new state Senate map in December, too.
The voter ID challenge, meanwhile, saw the justices hold that the GOP's 2018 law requiring photo ID had intentionally discriminated against Black voters, ruling that it carried over some of the taint of the infamous 2013 law it sought to replace. A federal court invalidated that previous law in 2016 for "target[ing] African-Americans with almost surgical precision." Republicans responded by passing a new law in a lame-duck session just before they lost their illegally gerrymandered supermajorities needed to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's veto, illustrating the strong connection between gerrymandering and voting rights.
It's unclear just how quickly the Republican justices could overturn these two rulings and allow GOP lawmakers to pass new gerrymanders and voting restrictions, but both cases will likely get resolved well in time for the 2024 elections. The court-drawn congressional map used last year saw both parties win seven seats apiece, closely mirroring North Carolina's swing-state status, but GOP mapmakers could devise new lines that give their party 10 or even 11 of the state's 14 districts, just as they attempted for 2022 before the courts stepped in. New legislative gerrymanders could similarly restore the three-fifths supermajorities needed to override vetoes and put Democratic control out of reach.
If the state court reverses its congressional map ruling, that could also moot the GOP's ongoing appeal asking the U.S. Supreme Court's similarly partisan far-right majority to issue a radical ruling of its own. In that case, Republicans want the court to overturn two centuries of constitutional law by dismantling the power of state judges to enforce state constitutions when adjudicating laws passed by state legislatures that govern federal elections. If it rules in favor of this argument, known as the "independent state legislature" theory, the Supreme Court would hand gerrymandered legislatures across the country nearly unchecked power to gerrymander and restrict voting access in federal races.
That case, called Moore v. Harper, was argued Dec. 7; while a ruling could come at any time, the federal court often waits until the end of its term in late June before issuing decisions in its most contentious cases. However, GOP state legislators have said they don't expect to begin the court-ordered process of replacing the temporary 2022 congressional map until after the Moore decision is handed, which means the U.S. Supreme Court might rule before the North Carolina Supreme Court does.
We're chatting with one of our favorite fellow election analysts on this week's episode of The Downballot, Kyle Kondik of Sabato's Crystal Ball. Kyle helped call races last year for CBS and gives us a rare window inside a TV network's election night decision desk, which literally has a big button to call control of the House—that no one got to press. Kyle also dives into his new race ratings for the 2024 Senate map, including why he thinks Joe Manchin's unlikely tight-rope act might finally come to an end.
In their Weekly Hits, co-hosts David Nir and David Beard recap big developments in two Senate contests: Rep. Adam Schiff's entry into the race to succeed Dianne Feinstein, and the GOP's unexpected show of unity in the open-seat election in Indiana. They also dissect the first poll of this year's hotly contested race for governor in Kentucky and highlight another 2023 battle that shouldn't get overlooked: the race for a vacant seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.