Efforts by the Democratic Party to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the November election appear to have been set back on Friday by new developments in a high-profile partisan gerrymandering case in North Carolina. The chances diminished that new district election maps, very likely to favor Democratic candidates, would be put into place in time for the election November 6.
For the last three House elections, Republicans have won 10 out of the state’s 13 districts, using maps drawn up in 2016, but a special three-judge federal court ruled last Monday that those maps are unconstitutional. The GOP has gained that many seats even though statewide voting in North Carolina has been split fairly even between the two parties.
The court battle over claims of partisan manipulation of that state’s congressional districts is shaping up as the most significant test of whether the Supreme Court will – for the first time in history – put some constitutional limits on such party-driven districting.
In addition to that, North Carolina is always a pivotal state in national elections, and Democrats have been hoping to make gains there this year, especially in the wake of the new court ruling last Monday.
If the judges’ new ruling were to go into effect swiftly, new maps would have to be crafted and those probably would give the Democrats’ a fairly good chance of picking up several seats, moving them nearer their target of House control. The federal court actually is entertaining the idea of mandating new maps for use this year.
But the organizations and voters who had successfully challenged the 2016 district lines as a bold and intentional move by the GOP to put Democrats at a strong disadvantage told the court on Friday afternoon – “with the utmost frustration and regret” – that it is now too late to do all that would have to be done to prepare new maps for use this year.
Citing past rulings by the Supreme Court against making major changes in election rules late in a campaign cycle, the challengers said they felt obliged to “endorse the wisdom” of those rulings in view of the facts that “elections are truly imminent, the changes involved are so substantial, and the state election machinery is [already] underway.”
Meanwhile, the leaders of the Republican-controlled state legislature asked the federal court to put its decision on hold, and vowed to ask the Supreme Court to do that if the three-judge panel refused. The lawmakers contended that the Justices have never worked out a formula for striking down partisan gerrymanders, and probably are not ready to do so now.
They urged the court panel to act on their request by next Tuesday so that they “can immediately seek relief in the United States Supreme Court if necessary.” They also formally notified the court panel that they will be challenging the new decision in a coming appeal to the Justices.
The GOP leaders, as expected, argued in their new filings that is too late to order the creation and use of new election districts this close to the November election. “There is literally no precedent for a court to enjoin congressional elections two months before a general election, and in fact all of the precedent is to the contrary,” they wrote.
The legislators noted that candidates have already been nominated for the state’s 13 districts and have already spent $14 million of the $20 million total they had raised for this year’s campaign. Overall, the legislators asserted, the new court ruling striking down the 2016 maps “has unleashed an avalanche of confusion…candidates and voters are in an upheaval.”
State election officials, in their own filings with the three-judge court, outlined a series of possible scenarios that would make it possible to conduct this year’s election with new districting maps, but all of the steps made it appear that there would have to be significant short-cuts and reduced timelines.
In the new ruling last Monday, the three-judge court ruled that GOP legislators’ had acted unconstitutionally in drawing the election districts for 12 of the state’s 13 districts. The only one that the court found had passed one test of excessive partisanship was the 5th District, along the state border with Virginia and currently represented by Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx. But applying a separate constitutional test, that court struck down the entire 2016 plan.
It explicitly declared that the state could not use the new districting plan after this year’s election, but said it had not yet decided what it would do about allowing its use this year. The filings on Friday came in response to the judges’ request for the views of all those involved in the case.
That case had been to the Supreme Court last term, but was sent back to the three-judge panel for a new look, taking into account a decision by the Justices that appeared to narrow the kind of constitutional challenges that it would allow to be pursued on theories of excessive partisanship.
With the case back before the panel, the judges found that the challengers had made their case.
If the new case moves swiftly to the Supreme Court, any preliminary action on it – such as a plea by state legislative leaders to put the new ruling on hold pending an appeal – would come before eight Justices because of the existing vacancy caused by the retirement of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. The Senate is not expected to act for several weeks on President Trump’s nomination of Circuit Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to succeed Kennedy.
In the decision last term, issued in a Wisconsin partisan gerrymandering case, the Supreme Court did not rule on the merits of the challenge in that case. Four of the nine Justices, in a separate opinion by Justice Elena Kagan, showed strong sympathy for such challenges, and the three-judge panel in the North Carolina case made heavy use of the Kagan reasoning in finding excessive partisanship.