North Carolina case may result in limits to gerrymandering

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The U.S. Supreme Court recently considered two major cases that might have settled whether majority political parties have a nearly unlimited right to draw voting districts that favor their candidates. The lawsuits to challenge gerrymandering were brought against Republicans in Wisconsin and Democrats in Maryland.

The Wisconsin decision in particular was expected to have implications on the gerrymandering fight here in North Carolina, where Democrats and voting rights activists say the GOP majority in the N.C. General Assembly has gone too far.

But the Supreme Court justices punted. They did not address the core issue of gerrymandering. Instead, they sided with the defendants, because they said the plaintiffs in the Wisconsin case did not have sufficient standing to sue, and the plaintiffs in Maryland waited too long to issue a legal challenge.

The decision was disappointing. Americans deserve to know whether the parties are playing fair under the U.S. Constitution.

But there is a bright side: Legal experts believe voting rights advocates will get another chance, as soon as the court’s next term in 2019. The losing side of the 5-4 decision, which came down Monday, sought to make sure of that.

The four justices in their dissenting opinion lay out for potential plaintiffs what The New York Times called a “detailed road map for how such claims could be framed and presented.”

The newspaper quoted Justice Elena Kagan, an appointee of President Obama, who wrote, “The need for judicial review is at its most urgent in these cases. For here, politicians’ incentives conflict with voters’ interests, leaving citizens without any political remedy for their constitutional harms.”

Many court-watchers believe the next such test case could come from North Carolina, namely Common Cause v. Rucho. Jane Pinsky, of the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, said “the North Carolina case might just be the set of facts and legal theories the court needs to set a clear, constitutional standard that will end partisan gerrymandering.”

A story in Raleigh’s News & Observer calls the North Carolina case the “next in the queue” to be considered by the Supreme Court on gerrymandering. The high court could make a decision soon on whether to hear full arguments in the case in its next term, according to Politico.

In the Common Cause case, plaintiffs challenged the congressional maps drawn by state legislators in 2016. Those maps were already do-overs after courts had struck down earlier versions. In March 2017, a three-judge panel combined the Common Cause case with one brought by the League of Women Voters against state Sen. Bob Rucho, one of the districts’ architects.

The defendants wanted the court to hold off on a decision until after the Wisconsin and Maryland cases were decided, because those rulings would likely affect North Carolina. The panel denied that request and in January, stuck down the 2016 districts as unconstitutional. The case is currently on appeal.

Gerrymandering is not new. But sophisticated computer software has been brought into the process that allows lawmakers in the majority to slice up districts in ways not imagined by previous generations of pols cutting deals in smoky backrooms. The result is often representation that is out of whack.

In North Carolina, for example, the popular vote for U.S. House seats in 2016 was 53 percent Republican to 47 percent Democrat. But the delegation representing the state in Washington is 10 Republicans to three Democrats.

Republican Rep. David Lewis, who is Rucho’s counterpart in the N.C. House, infamously said the only reason it’s not 11-2 is that he didn’t think it was possible.

Such naked partisanship may be good for him and his party, but is it good for democracy? The U.S. Supreme Court did not decide last week. But a decision will come one day.

The Fayetteville Observer