The U.S. Supreme Court Monday cleared the way for Texas and North Carolina to use a set of contested legislative district lines, declining to side with plaintiffs who alleged the maps were gerrymandered for partisan or racial advantage.
The decisions come one week after the high court sidestepped sweeping rulings in landmark challenges to political gerrymanders.
The North Carolina case, Rucho v. Common Cause, involved a challenge to the state’s congressional district map. The current lines afford Republicans a 10-3 advantage in North Carolina’s congressional delegation, although the state has adopted a moderate political character in recent election cycles.
As in other gerrymandering cases, mapmakers brazenly acknowledged the partisan interests driving the process.
“I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats,” said North Carolina Republican Rep. David Lewis, who chairs the state legislature’s redistricting committee. “So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country.”
A three-judge district court said the map was unconstitutional and ordered the state to produce new maps in time for the 2018 elections, but the justices placed that order on hold in January.
Monday’s order lifted the three-judge panel’s ruling, and required the lower court to reconsider the case in light of the June 18 Gill v. Whitford ruling. In Gill, the Supreme Court rejected a challenge to Wisconsin’s state legislative map on procedural grounds, finding the plaintiffs had not established they have standing to sue.
The Court presumably believes the North Carolina case presents similar standing issues to Gill. On remand, the plaintiffs must show that the district lines inflict tangible harm on Democratic voters. They may also choose to deemphasize their challenge to the map in its entirety, instead focusing on individual challenges to particular congressional districts.
Speaking after the order was issued, Common Cause president Karen Hobert Flynn said she remains confident they will ultimately prevail over the state. (RELATED: Roberts Sides With Liberals To Deliver Privacy Victory)
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” she said. “However, we are confident that we have standing to be able to make our way back to the Supreme Court so that the justices may draw a clear line against partisan political gerrymanders that leave too many Americans without fair representation.”
The Texas case is the latest iteration in a long-running dispute over the state’s assembly and congressional district maps. Critics charge the maps were intentionally drawn to disfavor Latino and black voters. A federal court agreed, and imposed new, judicially drawn district maps in 2011. The state legislature formally adopted the judge-drawn maps in 2013.
But a three-judge court found in September 2017 the Texas assembly failed to remove the taint of racism even from the judge-drawn maps. They ordered the state legislature to produce new district lines, but the Supreme Court put that ruling on hold.
A five-justice majority composed of the Court’s conservatives upheld all but one of the districts Monday, explaining that the lower court failed to afford the legislature a presumption of good faith. Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion, while Justice Sonia Sotomayor led the liberal bloc in dissent.
“When all the relevant evidence in the record is taken into account, it is plainly insufficient to prove that the 2013 legislature acted in bad faith and engaged in intentional discrimination,” Alito wrote.
Sotomayor blasted the majority in dissent, accusing the Court of bludgeoning its way to a conclusion ignorant of racial realities.
“The Court intervenes when no intervention is authorized and blinds itself to the overwhelming factual record below,” she wrote. “It does all of this to allow Texas to use electoral maps that, in design and effect, burden the rights of minority voters to exercise that most precious right that is ‘preservative of all rights.'”
Disclosure: The author’s wife is employed by a law firm involved in both cases.
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