Over two Justices’ dissents, the Supreme Court on Thursday temporarily blocked a lower court order that would have required North Carolina’s legislature to quickly adopt new election maps for the state’s 13 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, to replace maps that strongly favored Republican candidates.
The Justices’ order put on hold – probably until after this year’s congressional elections – a decision last week by a three-judge federal trial court declaring that the two-year-old districting plan was an unconstitutional “partisan gerrymander” – that is, drawn with the specific aim to assure that Republican candidates would win 10 of those 13 seats, even though the GOP generally gets only slightly more than half the votes cast statewide for House seats.
That ruling marked the first time that a congressional districting plan had been found to be a partisan gerrymander. The three-judge court had given the state legislature only two weeks to come up with a new set of election boundaries that would cure the constitutional violation that the court found.
Republican leaders of the North Carolina legislature asked the Supreme Court to postpone the lower court decision until the lawmakers could appeal to the Supreme Court. Among other arguments, the request said that it was an insult to the state legislature to give it only a short period of time to start all over in drawing up new districts.
The lawmakers also argued that it is not even clear that the Supreme Court will allow challengers to pursue claims of partisan gerrymandering. The Court has not barred such claims, but it has not yet found a workable formula for judging when there had been “too much” partisanship.
The Justices, during their current term, are reviewing two cases – one from Maryland and one from Wisconsin – on the specific question of whether such a formula can now be crafted.
In the new order delaying the North Carolina case, the Justices said the lower court ruling would remain suspended until a formal appeal is filed to challenge that decision, and the Justices have issued a final ruling.
Given that such an appeal has not yet been filed, and given that the Court is close to the time when it cannot review and decide any new cases in the remainder of the current term, it appears that North Carolina voters will go to the polls this year voting for candidates to run in the districts drawn in the plan that the lower court found to be unconstitutional.
The likelihood now is that, after the Supreme Court rules in the cases from Maryland and Wisconsin, it would use those rulings as the basis for disposing of the North Carolina case. The final decisions in the cases now under review are not likely to emerge until late in the current term, which probably will run through late June.
The Justices did not spell out specifically how the nine Justices had voted in favor of the postponement, but the order did specify that Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor voted to reject the delay request. It took the votes of at least five of the nine Justices to approve the postponement.
The Justices acted on the question of delay within hours after the final legal papers had been filed.