‘I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage of 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats…’
(David G. Savage, McClatchy Washington Bureau) The Supreme Court agreed Friday to decide whether North Carolina’s election map is an example of unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering or a legal effort by the state’s Republican leaders to lock in a 10-to-3 advantage in its congressional delegation.
The court will also decide whether Maryland Democrats violated the Constitution by redistricting tens of thousands of voters to turn a safe Republican district into a reliably Democratic one.
As Democrats, led by former Attorney General Eric Holder and a legion of high-powered, well-heeled attorneys have led a coordinated charge to turn electoral maps blue by issuing sustained legal challenges to Republican state legislatures, thereby entrenching their own influence, the high court’s rulings in the cases—due in the first half of next year—will likely have major political implications for 2020 and beyond.
The court said it will hear arguments in March in the two cases: Rucho v. Common Cause and Lamone v. Benisek.
The justices have never struck down an election map on the grounds that politicians went too far in giving their party’s candidates an advantage. But the challengers in North Carolina and Maryland have unusually strong cases because the political leaders candidly admitted they were drawing the map for political advantage. They emphasized their actions were not motivated by racial gerrymandering, which the high court had ruled is unconstitutional.
“I’m making clear that our intent is to use the political data we have for partisan advantage,” said North Carolina state Rep. David Lewis, when state lawmakers met in a special session in Raleigh two years ago to revise the congressional districts.
Lewis announced he would go as far as possible to benefit Republicans. “I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage of 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats,” he said.
Voters who leaned in favor of Democrats were concentrated in three districts, while 10 districts were drawn to give Republicans a safe but not overwhelming margin.
In November, the plan worked as intended. North Carolina’s voters were closely split in statewide tallies, with Republicans holding a 51 percent-49 percent edge. But the GOP again won 10 of the 13 House seats, although one race remains in doubt because of allegations of fraud in the handling of absentee ballots.
Lawyers for Common Cause and the League of Women Voters had sued, alleging this partisan manipulation of the districts violates the voters’ rights to a fair election and an equal vote. Twice, they won before a three-judge federal district court which called the election map discriminatory in its intent and its effect. The judges said the politically tilted map violated the First Amendment because it diluted the votes of some voters based on their political views, and it denied them the equal protection of the laws.
But the Supreme Court set aside the first ruling in June so this year’s election could proceed with the GOP-drawn map. And the challengers face an uphill battle now that the high court has agreed to review the case of Rucho v. Common Cause.
In their appeal, lawyers for the North Carolina Republicans said there is no “manageable standard” for a court to decide when politics played too large a rule in drawing district lines. They also said voters do not have a right to “proportional representation” in the number of seats won based on statewide results.
In the past, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and his conservative colleagues have strongly suggested the courts have no role to play in policing election districts. He has pointed to a provision in the Constitution which says: “The times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives shall be prescribed in each state by the Legislature.”
Four years ago, he would have struck down the voter-approved independent commissions in California, Arizona and several other states on the grounds this map-drawing power resided with the state legislature. But he lost in a 5-4 decision when the now-retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy joined the four liberals in a case from Arizona.
Earlier this year, the chief justice spoke for the court in overturning a gerrymandering ruling from a three-judge federal court in Wisconsin, and he did so based on procedural grounds. The district judges said the state map was drawn to “entrench” one party in power for at least a decade. However, Roberts said the plaintiffs who voted in local elections did not have standing to challenge the statewide election map.
Last month, the politically drawn map allowed Wisconsin’s Republicans to retain a super-majority of 63 of 99 seats in the state Assembly, despite winning only 46 percent of the statewide vote. Democrats won the statewide races in Wisconsin, including for governor and attorney general, but the voters’ shift toward the Democrats had no impact on political makeup of the state legislature.
(c)2019 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.