The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide whether Republican lawmakers relied too heavily on race when they redrew North Carolina’s congressional districts to give the GOP a powerful advantage in the swing state.
The justices will hear the case in the fall — almost certainly too late to affect November’s elections. But in the years ahead, it could impact partisan efforts to create electoral districts aimed at swaying the balance of power in Congress and in state legislatures.
The Supreme Court could consider it together with a similar appeal from Virginia, where challengers say Republicans packed black voters into a dozen statehouse districts, strengthening GOP control of neighboring territories.
Five of the eight current justices appear sympathetic to such claims brought by minority voters, based on a 2015 ruling in an Alabama case, according to election-law expert Rick Hasen at the University of California at Irvine.
North Carolina’s GOP leaders deny factoring in race to an illegal extent, saying their 2011 map was designed primarily to give Republicans an edge while complying with the federal Voting Rights Act after the 2010 census.
“We continue to believe the maps are fair, legal and constitutional and look forward to our day in court,” state Sen. Bob Rucho, a chief architect of the maps, said Monday.
Opponents say they unfairly stacked black voters into two districts that were already electing African-American representatives, thus diluting their influence in neighboring territories.
A federal court ruled in February that race was the predominant factor in drawing the two districts and ordered them redrawn. A new map of 13 congressional districts was used in an unusual June 7 primary, separate from most other races.
A high court ruling also should influence a separate court challenge of North Carolina’s state legislative districts.
North Carolina is a swing state whose voters split almost evenly in the last two presidential elections. But the GOP’s maps created veto-proof majorities in the state legislature, and the congressional delegation now has 3 Democrats to 10 Republicans.
The latest court-ordered map essentially created a new district without an incumbent, but the Republican-leaning territory is expected to help the GOP maintain this 10-3 edge.
It also upended the former territories of two Republican members of Congress, pitting them against each other in the primary. State Rep. George Holding beat state Rep. Renee Ellmers after groups including the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity funded ads questioning her conservative credentials. Holding is expected to beat a Democrat in November.
The state’s lawyers, meanwhile, say the federal court’s logic forces North Carolina into the difficult situation of having to consider race to comply with federal voting rights laws, while also triggering “strict scrutiny” of its maps for doing so.
“The three-judge court’s approach would trap states between the threat of vote dilution claims and the hammer of a racial gerrymandering claim,” they wrote in a Supreme Court filing.
Their challengers argue that GOP mapmakers illegally gerrymandered the 2011 map, drawing boundaries “whose grasping tendrils were necessary to capture disparate pockets of black voters.”
The case is McCrory v. Harris, 15-1262.
Republished with the permission of The Associated Press.