The Supreme Court on Monday upheld a lower court ruling that found North Carolina’s congressional map to be an illegal racial gerrymander.
The surprising 5-3 decision, in which Justice Clarence Thomas sided with the court’s four liberals, could have a big impact by making it easier to challenge redistricting plans that dilute the votes of racial minorities.
It also could potentially help shift the balance of power in North Carolina, where Republicans have been perhaps more aggressive than their counterparts in any other state in using full control of the government to manipulate election rules in their favor.
In Cooper v. Harris, the justices affirmed a three-judge court’s finding from last October that North Carolina’s Republican legislature illegally used race as the predominant factor when it drew two congressional districts during the 2011 redistricting round.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as well as Thomas. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy dissented.
North Carolina’s legislature already had redrawn the congressional districts at issue. But the ruling’s impact could affect plenty of other redistricting cases, especially in the south – including a separate North Carolina case challenging state legislative districts. A lower court had found this, too, to be a racial gerrymander. The case is now before the Supreme Court, and civil rights groups say that if the court uses the logic of Monday’s decision, it will find the state legislative districts to be racial gerrymanders, too.
“What I find most significant is that the Legislature made the same legal mistake and used race the same way in drawing the state’s House and Senate districts,” Anita Earls, the executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which had challenged the state legislative districts, said in a statement. “This opinion, with Justice Thomas joining the majority, must mean those districts are also unconstitutional.”
The lower court in that case had ordered North Carolina to hold new state legislative elections under redrawn maps this fall. The Supreme Court had blocked that order while it was deciding Cooper v. Harris. Now, Monday’s ruling could make it more likely that those new elections are reinstated.
That, in turn, could give North Carolina Democrats a chance to pick up seats and potentially end the GOP’s veto-proof super-majorities in both state legislative chambers. That’s by no means a certainty, but losing their super-majorities would make it much harder for Republicans to pass new voting restrictions. They vowed to do that last week, after the Supreme Court declined to revive their 2013 voting law, which itself was blocked last year as racially discriminatory.
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