A panel of federal judges struck down North Carolina’s congressional map on Tuesday, condemning it as unconstitutional because Republicans had drawn the map seeking a political advantage.
The ruling was the first time that a federal court had blocked a congressional map because of a partisan gerrymander, and it instantly endangered Republican seats in the coming elections.
Judge James A. Wynn Jr., in a biting 191-page opinion, said that Republicans in North Carolina’s Legislature had been “motivated by invidious partisan intent” as they carried out their obligation in 2016 to divide the state into 13 congressional districts, 10 of which are held by Republicans. The result, Judge Wynn wrote, violated the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection.
The ruling and its chief demand — that the Republican-dominated Legislature create a new landscape of congressional districts by Jan. 24 — infused new turmoil into the political chaos that has in recent years enveloped North Carolina. President Trump carried North Carolina in 2016, but the state elected a Democrat as its governor on the same day and in 2008 supported President Barack Obama.
The unusually blunt decision by the panel could lend momentum to two other challenges on gerrymandering that are already before the Supreme Court — and that the North Carolina case could join if Republicans make good on their vow to appeal Tuesday’s ruling.
In October, the court heard an appeal of another three-judge panel’s ruling that Republicans had unconstitutionally gerrymandered Wisconsin’s State Assembly in an attempt to relegate Democrats to a permanent minority. In the second case, the justices will hear arguments by Maryland Republicans that the Democratic-controlled Legislature redrew House districts to flip a Republican-held seat to Democratic control.
The Supreme Court has struggled without success for decades to develop a legal standard for determining when a partisan gerrymander crosses constitutional lines. The court once came close to ruling that such cases were political matters beyond its jurisdiction. But the rise of extreme partisan gerrymanders in the last decade, powered by a growing ideological divide and powerful map-drawing software, has brought the question back to the justices with new urgency. A Supreme Court ruling outlawing at least some such gerrymanders could reshape the political landscape.
Fights over voting rights and election procedures have often taken center stage in Raleigh, North Carolina’s capital, and Tuesday’s ruling noted that “partisan advantage” had been a criterion lawmakers used when mulling how to map the state.
Republican officials in the General Assembly said Tuesday evening that they intended to appeal the ruling, which many elected officials and political strategists were still scrambling to digest. Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, criticized Judge Wynn and accused him of “waging a personal, partisan war on North Carolina Republicans.”
In a separate post on Twitter, Mr. Woodhouse argued that Judge Wynn had concluded that North Carolina’s Republicans “should not be allowed to draw election districts under any circumstances under any set of rules,” an effort he called “a hostile takeover” of the General Assembly and legislatures nationwide. Republicans could ask the Supreme Court to stay the decision and allow the disputed map to be used this year.
But critics of the congressional map welcomed a decision that was notable for its tartness and urgency.
“Clearly, the courts have realized that they do need to step in and police extreme partisan gerrymanders, and the court recognized that North Carolina’s gerrymander was one of the most extreme in history,” said Ruth Greenwood, senior legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center and a lawyer representing some of the map’s challengers.
The chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party, Wayne Goodwin, said the decision was “a major victory for North Carolina and people across the state whose voices were silenced by Republicans’ unconstitutional attempts to rig the system to their partisan advantage.”
The judges issued their decision fewer than 24 hours before the General Assembly was to convene in Raleigh for a special session. The ruling unmistakably placed lawmakers on the clock, giving them two weeks to present a “remedial plan” and declaring that the court would institute its own map if it finds the new district lines unsatisfactory.
“Politically, this gives hope to Democrats,” said J. Michael Bitzer, a professor of political science at Catawba College, which is near Charlotte. “I can imagine the Republicans being furious, but they have to see political reality, and it’s not just in the next two weeks: It’s come November.”
Professor Bitzer, though, cautioned that the ultimate political fallout would not become clearer until the courts settled what could be a cascade of appeals and injunctions.
The ruling left little doubt about how the judges assessed the Legislature’s most recent map. Judge Wynn, who sits on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and was a member of a special panel considering the congressional map, said that “a wealth of evidence proves the General Assembly’s intent to ‘subordinate’ the interests of non-Republican voters and ‘entrench’ Republican domination of the state’s congressional delegation.”
Most federal lawsuits are first heard by a district court, and later — if needed — by an appeals court and the Supreme Court. But under federal law, constitutional challenges to the apportionment of House districts or statewide legislative bodies are automatically heard by three-judge panels, and appeals are taken directly to the Supreme Court.
In addition to Judge Wynn, an appointee of Mr. Obama’s, Senior Judge W. Earl Britt of the Federal District Court in Raleigh joined the opinion. Judge Britt was appointed by President Jimmy Carter.
Judge William L. Osteen Jr., who was appointed by President George W. Bush and sits on the federal bench in Greensboro, said he agreed that the existing map violated the 14th Amendment, but he disputed other parts of Judge Wynn’s opinion, including the decision to appoint an independent expert to begin preparing an alternative map.
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