North Carolina Court, With New Partisan Mix, Reverses Itself on a Key Voting Case

Barely a year after Democratic justices on the North Carolina Supreme Court said new maps of the state’s legislative and congressional districts were partisan gerrymanders that violated the State Constitution, a newly elected Republican majority on the court reversed course on Friday and said the court had no authority to overturn those maps.

The practical effect is to enable the Republican-controlled State Legislature to scrap the court-ordered State Senate and congressional district. boundaries that were used in elections last November, and draw new maps skewed in their favor for elections in 2024.

Overturning such a recent ruling by the court was a highly unusual move, particularly on a pivotal constitutional issue in which none of the facts had changed. In an opinion divided 5 to 2 along party lines, the new Republican majority of justices said the court had no authority to strike down partisan maps that the state General Assembly had drawn.

“Our constitution expressly assigns the redistricting authority to the General Assembly subject to explicit limitations in the text,” Chief Justice Brian Newby wrote for the majority. “Were this Court to create such a limitation, there is no judicially discoverable or manageable standard for adjudicating such claims.”

To some legal experts, the legal reasoning was overshadowed by a different message: that in politically charged cases, the deciding factor increasingly is not the law or legal precedent, but which party holds the majority on the court.

“If you think the earlier state Supreme Court was wrong, we have mechanisms to change that, like a constitutional amendment,” Joshua A. Douglas, an scholar on state constitutions at the University of Kentucky College of Law, said in an interview. “But changing judges shouldn’t cause such a sea change in the rule of law, because if that’s the case, precedent has no value any longer, and judges really are politicians.”

The state court also handed down two more rulings overturning decisions that had reined in the legislature’s ability to restrict voting rights. In the first, the justices reconsidered and reversed a ruling by the previous court, again along party lines, that a voter ID law passed by the Republican majority in the legislature violated the equal protection clause in the state constitution.

In the second, the court said a lower court “misapplied the law and overlooked facts crucial to its ruling” when it struck down a state law that denied voting rights to people who had completed prison sentences on felony charges but were not yet released from parole, probation or other court restrictions.

The lower court had said the requirement was rooted in an earlier law that itself was written to deny voting rights to African Americans, a conclusion the justices said was mistaken.

The North Carolina cases mirror a national trend in which states that elect their judges — Ohio, Kentucky, Kansas, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and others — have seen races for their high court seats turned into multimillion-dollar political battles, and their justices’ rulings viewed through a deeply partisan lens.

Such political jockeying once was limited mostly to confirmation battles over seats on the U.S. Supreme Court. But as the nation’s partisan divide has deepened, and the federal courts have offloaded questions about issues like abortion and affirmative action to the states, choosing who will decide state legal battles has increasingly become an openly political fight.

The ruling on Friday in the gerrymandering case, known as Moore v. Harper, came after partisan elections for two Supreme Court seats in November shifted the seven-member court’s political balance from 4-to-3 Democratic to 5-to-2 Republican.

The Democratic-controlled court ruled along party lines in February 2022 that both the state legislative maps and the congressional district maps approved by the Republican legislature violated the State Constitution’s guarantees of free speech, free elections, free assembly and equal protection.

A lower court later redrew the congressional map to be used in the November elections, but a dispute over the State Senate map, which G.O.P. leaders had redrawn, bubbled back to the state Supreme Court last winter. In one of its last acts, the Democratic majority on the court threw out the G.O.P.’s State Senate map, ordering that it be redrawn again. The court then reaffirmed its earlier order in a lengthy opinion.

Ordinarily, that might have ended the matter. But after the new Republican majority was elected to the court, G.O.P. legislative leaders demanded that the justices rehear not just the argument over the redrawn Senate map, but the entire case.

The ruling on Friday followed a brief re-argument of the gerrymander case in mid-March.

Like the majority-Democratic court’s ruling before it, the latest ruling on gerrymandering is likely to have a profound impact on the political landscape in North Carolina, and perhaps the nation.

North Carolina voters are almost evenly split between the two major parties; Donald J. Trump carried the state in 2020 with 49.9 percent of the vote. But the original map of congressional districts approved by the G.O.P. legislature in 2021 — and later ruled to be a partisan gerrymander — would probably have given Republicans at least 10 of the state’s 14 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Using a congressional map drawn last year by a court-appointed special master, the November election delivered seven congressional seats to each party. The decision on Friday would appear to allow the G.O.P. legislature to approve a new map along the lines of its first one, giving state Republicans — and the slender Republican majority in the U.S. House — the opportunity to capture at least three more seats.

the court.

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