The Supreme Court ruled Monday that two North Carolina congressional districts were drawn unconstitutionally, affirming a previous district court decision against the state’s redistricting and leaving in place a remedial congressional map drawn for the 2016 elections, pending an additional gerrymandering case.
The ruling centered on two Democratic-held districts and found that Republican state legislators, in drawing the congressional map earlier this decade, “packed” African-American voters into those districts to dilute the power of their votes in other congressional seats.
State Republicans argued that they increased the African-American population of the districts to comply with the Voting Rights Act, but Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her decision that the argument “does not withstand strict scrutiny.”
“For nearly 20 years before the new plan’s adoption, African-Americans made up less than a majority of District 1’s voters, but their preferred candidates scored consistent victories,” Kagan wrote of the district currently held by Democratic Rep. G.K. Butterfield.
North Carolina currently has three Democrats and 10 Republicans in the House of Representatives. The state had already redrawn its original congressional maps for this decade, which resulted in the member-versus-member primary between GOP Rep. Goerge Holding and former Rep. Renee Ellmers in 2016.
“This will serve as a clear warning to Republican legislatures everywhere that if they illegally racially gerrymander, they will be held to account in court,” said Marc Elias, a Democratic elections attorney who argued this case before the Supreme Court and is a senior adviser to the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a group spearheaded by former Attorney General Eric Holder.
While this Supreme Court ruling will not result in additional changes to the North Carolina congressional map, there is another case pending before the Supreme Court, suing North Carolina legislators over the remedial map that was draw in 2015. This suit accuses the Republican legislators of gerrymandering based on partisanship, a new legal tack that Democrats are pushing in several court cases around the country.
“This decision lays the groundwork for the challenge to the Republican remedial map,” Elias said. “They weren’t going to rule on the [partisan gerrymandering] case until they heard and decided on the merits of the [racially gerrymandering] case.”
Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor joined Kagan in the majority alongside Clarence Thomas — an unusual majority combination.