What The Supreme Court Decision On Gerrymandering Means For NC

Jun 27, 2019

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that North Carolina's congressional map is not an unconstitutional gerrymander. Chief Justice John Roberts, in writing 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.

Michael Bitzer
Credit Michael Bitzer / WFAE

Michael Bitzer, chair of the political science department at Catawba College in Salisbury, joins WFAE's All Things Considered host, Mark Rumsey, to talk about this ruling.

Rumsey: The federal court's majority opinion, a 5-4 opinion in this case, stated that the federal courts have no role in this matter. What's the magnitude of that?

Bitzer:  It's a pretty significant magnitude. The court's basically saying these kinds of issues — partisan gerrymandering — are political questions. They believe, first and foremost it is best left to the political branches, either to Congress, the president or to the states to deal with it. And the fact that the courts have no real standard by which to say these kinds of partisan gerrymandering cases is too much or this is sufficient.

Rumsey: In her dissenting opinion, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that for the first time ever this court, the Supreme Court, refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task is beyond judicial capabilities. That statement, the "first time ever." How do you hear that?

Bitzer: It was a very pointed and very strong dissent by Justice Kagan along with the four liberals. I think that they look at it as a violation of equal protection through the 14th Amendment.

They also she also wrote about the First Amendment's freedom of speech and how voters in her mind were being denied that freedom of speech because the districts were drawn so overwhelmingly for one party over the other. This only will, I think, continue to exacerbate the polarization based on our party politics in this country and in North Carolina.

Rumsey: Specifically looking then at how you see this ruling having an impact in North Carolina: Of course, there will be another round of redistricting coming up after the 2020 census. How do you see this playing out?

Bitzer: I think before we even get to the 2020 census and the redistricting that will occur in 2021, we have to be cognizant here in North Carolina that there is a state case, this one challenging the state legislative districts that were also, some argue, drawn for partisan gerrymandering that's working its way up to the state Supreme Court.

If I had to guess, the North Carolina state Supreme Court may take a very different view using the North Carolina Constitution's free elections provision to say partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional in the state. That would follow precedent in a state like Pennsylvania, where its state Supreme Court struck down partisan gerrymandering as well. But we'll just have to wait and see how those cases play out. I think all the dynamics shift to those state-level cases now.

Rumsey: The Southern Coalition for Social Justice also argues today that this Supreme Court ruling is deeply flawed. It's far from the last word on the matter, they say, and that they remain committed to pressing for changes. Where realistically can they continue to press for change on this issue?

Bitzer: They could certainly hope that the state-level cases that are working its way through the state court system will be more to their liking. They can also seek to influence the 2020 state legislative races and elections.

And certainly, if Democrats could flip one of the chambers of the General Assembly, perhaps Democrats control the North Carolina State House, Republicans control the state Senate. There you get into divided legislative government, and that could certainly have an impact on the redistricting process come 2021.