Courts & Crime

After 5 years, NC redistricting case reaches Supreme Court – but the wait may continue

Lawyers for the state of North Carolina will make oral arguments in the Supreme Court next week, seeking to overturn a lower federal court’s ruling that two of the state’s congressional districts were illegally and intentionally drawn to weaken African-American and minority voting power.

It’s expected the high court could hand down a decision in the case next spring or summer. That process, though, could be delayed if the current eight justices opt to have both sides re-argue the case next year, should a ninth justice be confirmed and join the bench.

The Supreme Court’s decision in the redistricting case – stemming from a legal challenge to congressional district maps drawn in 2011 by state lawmakers – could have significant political impact, though North Carolina already has redrawn the contested maps and the state used the newly approved districts in this year’s election. Earlier this year, a panel of three federal judges forced North Carolina to postpone congressional primaries and re-do the maps.

The central question in the case is whether North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature approved oddly shaped congressional districts that were drawn illegally to pack minority voters in the 1st and 12th Congressional Districts. The plaintiffs in the case argue North Carolina lawmakers sought to specifically weaken African-American voting power across the state, which would put Democratic candidates at a disadvantage. The state’s attorneys have argued the old maps are lawful and were drawn to meet federal requirements in place at the time.

The case has been winding its way through the courts since 2011, and a conclusion could still be many months away, given the possibility of waiting for President-elect Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. Similar cases involving questions of racially gerrymandered districts have been decided by 5-4 rulings, so it’s possible justices will require an odd number on the bench to render a decision next year, said Michael Li, senior redistricting counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

The Brennan Center filed a friend of the court brief in the North Carolina case in October, saying justices should consider the broader political landscape in which state lawmakers decided on the 2011 maps. The Brennan Center’s amicus brief cites a 2013 N.C. voter ID law, also under legal challenge, that opponents claim disenfranchises minority voters.

A federal court found earlier this year that North Carolina’s voter ID law was drafted by Republican lawmakers with “almost surgical precision” to target African-Americans. Key parts of the law were struck down before the Nov. 8 election, but the case is on appeal.

The facts that will go before the Supreme Court on Monday in oral arguments will deal directly with the maps in question and show that North Carolina officials acted legally, said N.C. Sen. Bob Rucho, a Republican from Mecklenburg County, who is chairman of the state Senate’s redistricting committee.

If a ruling is delayed to wait for a ninth Supreme Court judge appointed by Trump, that’s fine with him, Rucho told McClatchy on Monday.

“All I want to do is get a fair hearing and have the justices clarify the law,” he said.

Rucho noted the redistricting case was first heard by an N.C. trial court and the state Supreme Court twice before the panel of federal judges in February ruled against North Carolina’s legislature. Should the high court disagree with the panel, Rucho said, it may give state legislators the option of throwing out the 2016 maps and reverting to the 2011 district maps.

“We don’t feel that the new maps are justified. The original maps followed the law,” he said.

Anna Douglas: 202-383-6012, @ADouglasNews