Updated 1:34 p.m.
In a 5-3 decision, the US Supreme Court ruled Monday that two North Carolina Congressional Districts are illegal racial gerrymanders. The ruling upholds one issued last year by a lower court. And it could have wide ranging precedent.
The two districts in question are the 1st, in eastern North Carolina, and the 12th, which formerly stretched from Charlotte to Greensboro. Both had been drawn to be majority-minority districts.
The justices ruled that Republicans who controlled the state legislature and governor's office in 2011 placed too many African-Americans in the two districts. The result was to weaken African-American voting strength elsewhere in North Carolina.
The court unanimously affirmed the lower-court ruling on District 1. Justices split 5-3 on District 12.
The two districts have since been redrawn and the state conducted elections under the new congressional map in 2016. Even with the new districts, Republicans maintained their 10-3 edge in congressional seats.
GOP SEEKS ADVANTAGE
Republican lawmakers who drew the original boundaries in 2011 argued two points: First they drew the maps to comply with the Voting Rights Act, and second, they were drawing the map to gain a political advantage.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote the opinion in the ruling, and it shows both arguments fell short with the Supreme Court.
"The evidence offered at trial ... adequately supports the conclusion that race, not politics, accounted for the district's reconfiguration," Kagan wrote.
In the ruling on the 12th District, conservative Justice Clarence Thomas joined the four liberal justices to form a majority. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy dissented. Justice Neil Gorsuch did not take part.
There are some surprises in this ruling says Rick Hasen, law professor and author of the Election Law Blog (https://electionlawblog.org/) . Not in Justice Kagan’s text, but in the footnotes.
“She seems to suggest that race and party overlap with one another in certain places like North Carolina,” Hasen said.
That’s because African-American voters overall, tend to vote Democratic.
“And therefore when a state legislature passes a redistricting law with a partisan motivation that has a racial component to it than that could constitute racial gerrymandering,” he said.
Alito said in dissent that the evidence instead shows that the district's borders "are readily explained by political considerations."
NEW DISTRICTS FACE CHALLENGE
Last year the General Assembly redrew the state's congressional district map after a lower federal court found the map was a racial gerrymander. Today's ruling simply upholds that case.
A separate challenge has been filed to the redrawn districts, this time claiming that politics played too much of a role in their creation. The Supreme Court has never ruled that a partisan gerrymander violates the Constitution.
The issue of race and redistricting one is a familiar one at the Supreme Court and Kagan noted that one of the districts was "making its fifth(!) appearance before this court."
States have to take race into account when drawing maps for legislative, congressional and a host of municipal political districts. At the same time, race can't be the predominant factor without very strong reasons, under a line of high court cases stretching back 20 years.
VOTING RIGHTS GROUPS CHEER
Voting rights advocates said the ruling supports their arguments in yet another case pending before the Supreme Court that challenges North Carolina's state legislative districts. A federal court had previously thrown out 28 state House and Senate districts as illegal racial gerrymanders.
But earlier this year the Supreme Court temporarily halted an order to redraw those legislative districts. The justices could act on the challenge to the state districts as early as next week.
The lawyer leading the challenge to the state districts, Anita Earls of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said Monday's ruling has clear implications for that case.
"It's abundantly clear that what the state of North Carolina did in drawing its legislative districts cannot withstand constitutional muster," she said in a phone interview.
The court action comes at a time of intense political division in the state, highlighted by legal battles over moves by the GOP-controlled legislature to pass laws limiting some of the powers of North Carolina's new Democratic governor, Roy Cooper. Democrats have hoped that a redrawing of state districts could help them erode veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly.
Cooper issued a statement applauding Supreme Court for supporting "a level playing field and fair elections" for voters.
"The North Carolina Republican legislature tried to rig Congressional elections by drawing unconstitutional districts that discriminated against African Americans and that's wrong," Cooper said.
The Rev. William Barber, the president of the North Carolina NAACP who has sued separately over voting rights, said the high court's ruling shows that the General Assembly "engaged in systemic racism and cheated to win elections."
A Democratic group led by former Attorney General Eric Holder is focusing on redistricting challenges to counter political gains Republicans have made since the 2010 census and the redrawing of electoral districts that followed.
Holder said the National Democratic Redistricting Committee that he leads "will aggressively pursue new cases to end similar illegal racial gerrymandering in other states."
N.C. Republican party chair Robin Hayes said the party's stance hasn't changed.
"Our position continues to be the same as the Obama Justice Department on this issue, which pre-cleared these districts as fair and legal. I don't know how any legislature can perform this task when the rules change constantly from case to case, often after the fact," Hayes said in a statement.
Monday's decision was the latest in a series of Supreme Court rulings in favor of civil rights groups and black voters. Other challenges to political districts have come in Alabama and Virginia.
Read the Supreme Court ruling in the redistricting case, Cooper v. Harris (PDF)