WASHINGTON, D.C. — A 5-4 decision along partisan lines rules that federal courts have no role in determining the legality of partisan gerrymandering in state-drawn congressional maps, the U.S. Supreme Court announced June 27 in the Common Cause vs. Rucho case.
“Partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” the synopsis of the ruling states. “The conclusion that partisan gerrymandering claims are not justiciable neither condones excessive partisan gerrymandering nor condemns complaints about districting to echo into a void.”
Partisan gerrymandering is when a political party draws district lines to give its party an advantage in elections. Out of the 13 congressional districts in North Carolina, Republicans hold a 9-3 edge, pending the re-election result in NC-9, which was previously Republican. According to the N.C. State Board of Elections, as of June 2019, there are more than 2.47 million registered Democrats in N.C., more than the 2 million Republicans. Unaffiliated voters make up 2.1 million registered voters in the state.
The ruling vacates an August 2018 U.S. District Court for the Middle District of N.C. decision that declared 12 of the state’s 13 U.S. congressional districts unconstitutional, the lone exception being the 5th District, which includes Watauga, Ashe and Avery counties. Barring potential state legislation, the maps will be in use for the 2020 election.
The ruling also covered Lamonte vs. Benisek, a partisan gerrymandering case in Maryland where state Democrats drew districts to give themselves a 7-1 congressional edge.
The opinion of the court, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, states that while North Carolina’s congressional districts were blatant examples of partisanship driving district decisions, the First Amendment offers no clear and manageable way of distinguishing permissible from impermissible partisan motivation. Roberts also said the states have their own remedies for potential partisan gerrymandering solutions.
Roberts was joined by associate justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh in his opinion of the court, all Republican presidential appointees.
Elena Kagan wrote the dissenting opinion “with deep sadness,” stating that the majority of the court is refusing to remedy a constitutional violation for the first time and says their decision amounts to rigging elections.
“The partisan gerrymanders in these cases deprived citizens of the most fundamental of their constitutional rights: the rights to participate equally in the political process, to join with others to advance political beliefs, and to choose their political representatives,” Kagan wrote. “In so doing, the partisan gerrymanders here debased and dishonored our democracy,turning upside-down the core American idea that all governmental power derives from the people.”
Kagan was joined by fellow associate justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, all Democratic presidential appointees.
The N.C. GOP Chairman Michael Whatley said he was pleased with the ruling while the N.C. Democratic Party said the court failed to hold state Republicans accountable.
Common Cause, a watchdog advocacy group that seeks to hold government accountable, said in a statement that the SCOTUS “ducked its responsibility” for fair maps.
“Today, five Supreme Court justices turned their backs on hundreds of thousands of people in Maryland and North Carolina, who were stripped of their voice in Washington (D.C.) by power-hungry politicians,” Common Cause President Karen Hobert Flynn stated. ”The (U.S.) Supreme Court had the opportunity to end partisan gerrymandering once and for all but instead a narrow majority chose to wash their hands of the undemocratic practice.”
The last maps drawn by the state Democrats, which went from 2009-2011, resulted in eight Democrats and five Republicans representing North Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives.
An original decision by the Middle District court in January 2018 declared all 13 N.C. congressional districts unconstitutional. Upon appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the lower court’s decision was stayed and ultimately vacated in June 2018 for further consideration. The three-judge panel issued a new ruling on Aug. 27 saying 12 of the 13 congressional districts in North Carolina were unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders, the lone exception being the 5th District.
Plans to remediate the maps were postponed until after the 2018 elections in successive court decisions.
The current maps were redrawn by state legislators in 2017 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Cooper v. Harris that two North Carolina districts were “unlawful racial gerrymanders” in which African-American voters were grouped together by the Republican-led NCGA. Now-former state Sen. Robert Rucho (R-Matthews) was the chair of the N.C. Senate committee that helped redraw the maps.