North Carolina’s highest court, now controlled by Republicans following the November midterms, on Tuesday weighed reversing a three-month-old decision aimed at ensuring election maps are drawn fairly.
In December, when Democrats controlled the court, a 4-3 majority issued decisions that went against Republicans on redistricting and threw out the voter ID law. Republicans took over the court in January and soon after announced they would rehear both cases. Arguments in the redistricting case were heard Tuesday and arguments in the voter ID case will be held Wednesday.
North Carolina’s redistricting case is simultaneously before the U.S. Supreme Court, and what the North Carolina justices do will implicate how the nation’s high court handles the matter. Before the U.S. Supreme Court, North Carolina’s GOP legislative leaders have argued legislatures have expansive powers when it comes to redistricting and state courts have no authority to handle congressional gerrymandering cases.
If the U.S. Supreme Court adopted that idea, lawmakers in all states would have free rein to draw congressional districts to maximize partisan advantage. Now that the North Carolina court is reconsidering the case, it’s not clear how the U.S. Supreme Court will handle it. The U.S. Supreme Court this month asked for a new round of briefs about how the new hearing impacts its deliberations.
During Tuesday’s arguments in Raleigh, N.C., the court’s two Democrats pressed the attorney for GOP lawmakers on whether state courts could have any say on redistricting. They noted the state constitution guarantees free elections.
“Are you saying that because ‘fair’ does not appear in the constitution that elections don’t have to be fair, that it’s all right to have predetermined outcomes based on where the legislature decides to draw the lines?” asked Justice Micheal Morgan, a Democrat.
Phillip Strach, the attorney for the GOP lawmakers, said the state’s elections are fair but argued the state Supreme Court didn’t have the power to consider whether districts were drawn for political gain.
“Just because it’s not fair doesn’t mean that this body or any body, any political body, has the authority to deal with that question. Sometimes it’s got to be left up to the people,” Strach said.
That answer was unpersuasive to Justice Anita Earls, a Democrat.
“How can it be left up to the people? If the maps don’t fairly reflect the voting strength of the people of the state, aren’t you essentially seeking to prevent people from exercising control over their own government?” she asked.
Strach responded: “With respect, that’s circular in our opinion. You’re assuming that you can define what fair is.”
The Republican justices grilled the attorneys who challenged the GOP maps, with Chief Justice Paul Newby questioning whether courts would have to review the makeup of local governments in urban areas with large Democratic majorities.
“When we look at this, should there be any city councils, county commissioners, county commissions, school boards — should any of these be made up of only one party? And wouldn’t it be suspect if any of them are made up of only one party, particularly if you look at the aggregate votes in the county where that might be 45 to 47 percent?” he asked.
Lali Madduri, an attorney for Democratic voters, said the state constitution does not require proportional representation but rather ensures voters have an equal ability to translate their votes into political power.
States must draw new legislative and congressional maps every 10 years to make sure districts have equal populations. After the 2020 census, Republicans who control North Carolina’s legislature drew maps to their advantage and soon after a group of Democratic voters and others sued.
The state Supreme Court in February 2022 ruled that state courts had the authority to throw out maps that are overly partisan. The ruling was 4-3, with Democrats in the majority.
In December, the same majority struck down state Senate maps and approved congressional maps that had been established by a panel of three judges. Those congressional maps had been in place for the November election and resulted in seven Democrats and seven Republicans getting elected. The congressional maps that Republican lawmakers wanted would have given Republicans an advantage in 10 of the state’s 14 districts.
Also in December, in a separate case, the court in a 4-3 ruling struck down a 2018 voter ID law because it found the legislature passed it to disenfranchise Black voters.
The makeup of the state Supreme Court changed in January, when the winners of the November court elections were seated. Justices in North Carolina run with partisan affiliations and Republicans gained a 5-2 advantage on the court.
Ahead of Tuesday’s arguments, a crowd gathered outside the court to rally against the decision to revisit the cases.
“Cheating is usually done behind our backs. They are attempting to do this in front of our face. They are trying to pull the controller out of the game because they’re losing,” Marcus Bass, the deputy director of North Carolina Black Advance, told the group.
An earlier version of this article said the U.S. Supreme Court could rule on how states draw legislative and congressional district lines. The court is only looking at congressional redistricting. The article has been updated.