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Supreme Court Rulings Leave Partisan Gerrymandering Question Open

Phil Roeder / Flickr
Supreme Court of the United State

Updated 6:01 p.m.
The U.S. Supreme Court issued rulings Monday in two gerrymandering cases, from Wisconsin and Maryland, that are being closely watched in North Carolina. But the rulings don't touch on the key issue, whether it's legal to redraw districts to give an unfair advantage to a political party.

The justices ruled against Wisconsin Democrats, who challenged legislative districts that gave Republicans a big majority in the state legislature. But that ruling concerned only whether those who challenged the districts had standing to sue. The court sent the case back to the lower court and said individual voters must prove their case district by district, not statewide.

Separately, the justices ruled against Maryland Republicans, who objected to a single congressional district. They had sued over a lower court's denial of a preliminary injunction against the district boundary drawn by Democrats in 2011.  The Maryland case has not gone to trial at the lower level. Monday's ruling means the case can now go forward.

The Supreme Court is still considering whether to take up a North Carolina case involving similar issues. Bob Phillips is the head of Common North Carolina, which sued to overturn congressional maps redrawn in 2016 by the Republican controlled legislature. He said he's disappointed the court sidestepped the main issue.

"The Supreme Court, I guess some people are saying, punted on making a real decision on these two cases about what it was really a challenge over, and that is partisan gerrymandering. Should partisan gerrymandering be deemed unconstitutional? And the Supreme Court on technicalities tossed these cases back to the lower court," Phillips said. 

Still, Phillips said he's encouraged about prospects for his case.

"These technicalities have nothing to do with our case. We feel like we have a particularly strong case here, especially with sort of the smoking gun, if you will, and that is where lawmakers blatantly bragged about what they were doing when they drew these maps in February 2016. And that was admitting it was a partisan gerrymander," he said. 

That "smoking gun" was a statement by Rep. David Lewis, a Republican from eastern North Carolina's Harnett County.  He spoke in 2016 after Republicans put out the new maps, saying:

"I acknowledge freely that this would be a political gerrymander which is not against the law. I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it's possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats."

Opponents of the Republican maps say that demonstrates that Republicans drew the boundaries to give themselves an advantage in the state.  

But the Supreme Court still hasn't ruled definitively if that's illegal. 

In a statement Monday, Lewis welcomed the rulings.

“We are glad to see that the court decisively rejected sociological gobbledygook like the efficiency gap. It is crystal clear that our clean and compact districts will be used in the 2018 election and will survive whatever next steps the court takes.”


In January, a panel of federal judges ruled unanimously that all of North Carolina's U.S. House districts were illegal partisan gerrymanders, and ordered the districts redrawn. But the Supreme Court has put the lower-court decision on hold while it considers the case. That means redrawn maps remain in effect for this November's election. 

Democrats had challenged the districts in a case that includes plaintiffs in each of the state's 13 congressional districts.

Some of the voters who sued are represented by Southern Coalition for Social Justice and the Campaign Legal Center.  In a statement Monday morning, lawyer Allison Riggs said the Supreme Court left a lot to be discussed.

“The U.S. Supreme Court did not define any standard today that would be applicable to determining the merits of a partisan gerrymandering claim," Riggs said. "Today’s opinions were largely procedural and indicate the Court’s desire to keep the door open for further discussion about partisan gerrymandering. Multiple statements in the opinions indicate that this practice, when it becomes egregious and discriminatory, crosses the line to become unconstitutional.”

Other North Carolina cases also are still in the courts, including a challenge to redrawn legislative districts in North Carolina. The Supreme Court is still considering whether to take up that case.