The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that North Carolina's congressional map is not an unconstitutional gerrymander, giving the Republican leadership in the General Assembly a victory.
In a 5-4 decision along ideological lines, the court said that the state's map is not "justiciable." But the court said it neither "condones excessive partisan gerrymandering nor condemns complaints about districting to echo into a void."
Chief Justice John Roberts, in the majority opinion, wrote that "numerous states are actively addressing the issue through state constitutional amendments and legislation placing power to draw electoral districts in the hands of independent commissions, mandating particular districting criteria for their mapmakers, or prohibiting drawing district lines for partisan advantage."
Roberts was joined by justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanagh and Neil Gorsuch.
Elena Kagan wrote the dissenting opinion.
"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 Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The ruling not only upholds North Carolina's congressional map - which gives the GOP an advantage in 10 of the state's 13 seats - but it also allows political parties in other states to draw maps that maximize their advantage over another party.
That will be critical after the 2020 Census, as state legislatures across the country draw new congressional maps.
The case is Rucho v. Common Cause. Former state senator Bob Rucho of Mecklenburg County was co-chair of the 2016 joint legislative committee on congressional redistricting.
"What we're talking about is a validation that the U.S. Constitution said that the elected officials in the legislature have complete responsibility and authority in drawing those districts," Rucho said.
House redistricting committee chair David Lewis says the Supreme Court ruling is a "complete vindication" of the Republican-led redistricting process. In a Statehouse press conference, he called on critics to end their legal challenges.
"The framers gave this responsibility, they vested this responsibility, in the state legislature. It is time for the state Democratic Party, Common Cause, and other aligned leftist groups to stop wasting taxpayer money on lawsuits and bring this conversation back to the legislature."
The court had previously ruled that extreme gerrymandering based on race is unconstitutional. This is the first time the court had made a definitive decision on political gerrymandering.
Common Cause and The League of Women Voters sued the N.C. GOP leadership over the map. Much of their case rested on a 2016 statement by state Rep. David Lewis, of Harnett County, who said the GOP drew a map with 10 GOP-leaning seats and three Democratic seats because "because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats."
The state's map gives Republicans an advantage by packing Democrats into three overwhelmingly Democratic districts, including the 12th district that includes most of Mecklenburg County.
In addition to packing Democrats, the state "cracks" some Democratic cities, such as Asheville, Greensboro and Fayetteville. Those cities are split into two districts, diluting the influence of Democratic voters.
Lewis, in an opinion piece in The Atlantic published in March, wrote that the GOP created the three minority-majority districts to comply with the Voting Rights Act.
In oral arguments in March, Common Cause argued that any map that deliberately gave one party an advantage is unconstitutional. Allison Riggs, an attorney representing the League of Women voters, said the court should only throw out maps that were so blatant in their attempts to help one party over another.
North Carolina's map is considered one of the most gerrymandered maps in the nation.
In addition to Lewis’ admission, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters leaned on the work of a Duke mathematician, Jonathan Mattingly, who created more than 20,000 North Carolina congressional maps, based on some of the criteria the state used, like keeping counties whole. A 10-3 Republican map occurred in less than 1 percent of his maps.
"It was vanishingly many, vanishingly many," Mattingly told WFAE earlier this year. "It was a tiny number, a tiny fraction. It basically rarely happened, if ever."
In a prepared statement, North Carolina Democratic Party Chair Wayne Goodwin said: "For nearly a decade, Republicans have silenced the voices of North Carolinians using racial and partisan gerrymanders to pass extreme legislation and hold onto power at all costs. Today, the Supreme Court rewarded undemocratically-elected politicians who continue to show they will rig our state and our country to hold onto power no matter the cost."
Some conservative justices had questioned whether the plaintiffs were seeking "proportional representation." That would mean that a party that received, say, 35 percent of the vote in an election would be guaranteed 35 percent of the seats.
Both Common Cause and the League of Women Voters said they weren't seeking proportional representation.
In August, a three-judge panel ruled in favor of Common Cause and ordered new districts to be drawn immediately.
The Republican legislative leadership appealed, saying that new maps before the 2018 midterms would produce chaos.
Roberts wrote that the court “does not condone excessive partisan gerrymandering.”
But his opinion asked where the court would draw the line between an acceptable map and one that went too far in giving one party an advantage over another.
Roberts mentioned a hypothetical “median” map that would be the most fair. He asked whether “twenty percent of away from the median map would be okay? Forty percent? Sixty percent? Why or why not?”
He wrote that “the expansion of judicial authority would not be into just any area of controversy, but into one of the most intensely partisan aspects of American political life. That intervention would be unlimited in scope and duration – it would recur over and over again around the country with each new round of districting…”
He also wrote that gerrymandering could, at times, help the minority party. If a state had all 50-50 districts, one party could get completely wiped out in a wave election.