After a devastating setback at the U.S. Supreme Court, redistricting reformers got a key win in a partisan gerrymandering case in North Carolina’s state court on Tuesday.
A three-judge panel ruled that North Carolina’s 2017 state House and Senate plans violated several clauses in the state’s constitution. It’s the second time in recent years that partisan gerrymanders have been invalidated using a state constitution; Pennsylvania’s GOP-drawn maps were also thrown out due to state constitutional violations in a case that went all the way up to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
These types of the state court challenges grew significantly more important after the U.S. Supreme Court said in June that the federal judiciary cannot rein in partisan gerrymandering.
On a press call with reporters Tuesday evening, the challengers in the North Carolina case — the voting rights group Common Cause, which was represented by the law firm Arnold & Porter — discussed the implications of the North Carolina state court decision and hinted at next steps that could be taken.
Here are three big takeaways:
Similar challenges in other states
If the Pennsylvania’s case was the tip of the spear, the ruling in North Carolina could be the beginning of the trend. The lawyers on the call pointed out that several other states have language in their constitutions similar or identical to the clauses that brought down the North Carolina maps.
An opinion in the Pennsylvania litigation mentioned 12 other states (which did not include North Carolina) that had so-called “free election” clauses in their constitutions identical to the clause relevant in that case.
Tuesday’s North Carolina ruling was “exclusively a state law decision,” Arnold & Porter attorney Stanton Jones said on the press call, meaning that it is “not reviewable in any respect by the U.S. Supreme Court.”
A state court challenge to U.S. congressional districts
The North Carolina case only dealt with its state legislative maps. Its U.S. congressional map is also tilted towards Republicans: the current delegation’s party breakdown is 8-3 (with two vacancies), despite the statewide popular vote being close to an even split in 2018.
The challengers on Tuesday’s phone call expressed optimism that North Carolina’s U.S. congressional map could be successfully challenged based on the same constitutional language in the state legislative redistricting case.
“Both congressional redistricting plans and state legislative districting plans are ultimately laws enacted by the state legislature and those laws are equally subject to the constraints of the state’s constitution,” Jones said.
It remains to be seen whether such a legal challenge will come to fruition or if the mere threat of a lawsuit will prompt the legislature to draw a fairer congressional map in the next round of redistricting.
More airing of the Hofeller files
The files of Thomas Hofeller, a now-deceased GOP gerrymandering expert who drew North Carolina’s 2017 maps, played a crucial role in the case in convincing the court that he had the “predominant focus” of maximizing Republicans’ advantage. The challengers subpoenaed the files after they learned his daughter had found them while going through his stuff.
Kathay Feng, Common Cause’s National Redistricting Director, said Tuesday’s decision was “truly a case of a person’s words ringing from the grave.”
“We know from interacting with Dr. Hofeller in many other states that before he passed that he was involved in gerrymandering in multiple states,” she said. “We expect that there is additional evidence that needs to come forward about partisan gerrymandering that was carried out in multiple states throughout the United States.”
She suggested that revealing the “truth” about how these maps were drawn would encourage the development of clear standards that would move states away from the “unconstitutional methods that have become so popular in the last decade.”