Court Rules All NC Congressional Districts Are Illegal Gerrymanders

Jan 10, 2018

This year's congressional election has just been thrown into chaos.

Late Tuesday, a panel of federal judges ruled unanimously that all of North Carolina's election districts for the U.S. House of Representatives are illegal partisan gerrymanders. All 13 districts must now be redrawn just weeks before the campaign season officially kicks off with candidate filings.

WFAE's Tom Bullock goes through the ruling with Morning Edition host Marshall Terry.

Marshall: We've heard a lot about illegal racial gerrymandering by the Republican-controlled General Assembly of late (regarding state legislative districts). But this case is about partisan gerrymandering. And the case law here is a bit gray.

Tom: Which is why election law expert Rick Hasen wrote in his election law blog that this ruling is sure to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is already considering two other political gerrymandering cases. But if this North Carolina decision stands, it will likely be considered a landmark ruling. Here's why:

This is the first time a federal court has banned a congressional election map because of political gerrymandering. 

The scathing unanimous opinion, penned by 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge James Wynn, states that the Republican-controlled General Assembly was "motivated by invidious partisan intent" when lawmakers redrew the current districts in 2016. To determine this, Judge Wynn used what's known as the efficiency gap equation, the same mathematical modeling formula the mapmakers used to draw the districts for partisan gain. And it's important to note all three judges - two appointed by Democratic presidents, the third by a Republican president - agreed North Carolina's congressional districts are illegal partisan gerrymanders.

Marshall: Let's go through the specifics here. There are some surprising details brought to light by depositions in this case. In 2016, North Carolina lawmakers redrew most of the congressional map because two districts were found to be illegal racial gerrymanders.

Tom: That's correct, specifically the 12th congressional district centered here in Charlotte and the 1st congressional district in the Northeast. A federal panel found Republican lawmakers had packed too many African-American votes into those districts thus diluting the power of their votes.

That ruling came down on February 5th of 2016. The very next day a controversial Republican map-maker know for drawing districts favorable to GOP candidates, Thomas Hofeller, was given instructions by then-state Sen. Bob Rucho of Mecklenburg County and Representative David Lewis to redraw the districts.

Depositions given by the two Republicans show the instructions were verbal - given over the phone - which itself is noteworthy since there would be no written record of those instructions. Face-to-face meetings and more oral instructions followed.

All of this happened before Rucho and Lewis were even named as the co-leaders of the redistricting team - and before the committee itself was formed.

In fact, the court found, Hofeller "finished drawing the 2016 Plan before the public hearing and the opening of the window for members of the public to submit written comments. The plan, also "did not reflect any public input."

Marshall: That sounds like the public comments and political debate was little more than a show.

Tom: Yes it does. But that show did provide more evidence for the panel to use against the legislative defendants in this case. Rep. David Lewis stated during debate that the then-proposed redrawn map would mean North Carolina would send 10 Republicans and 3 Democrats to the U.S. House because he "did not believe it was possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats."

Lewis also said the maps would be drawn to benefit his fellow Republicans because he "think[s] electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats."

Marshall: So how does this partisan gerrymandering affect someone's constitutional rights?

Tom: That is one of the most interesting parts of this ruling. The judges found unanimously it violates the constitution in three key ways.

First, since the districts make it hard if not impossible for non-Republican candidates to succeed in the majority of North Carolina's congressional districts, it violates the political speech of would-be candidates. A violation of the First Amendment protection of freedom of speech.

Text from the federal court's ruling.

Second, the rulings says it violates the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment since "by seeking to diminish the electoral power of supporters of a disfavored party, a partisan gerrymander treats individuals who support candidates of one political party less favorably than individuals who support candidates of another party."

The final violation has to do with the election clause in article 1 of the constitution. This states the people shall elect their representatives for the U.S. House. Here, the panel found the parties picked their voters, and the voters were thus denied the right to elect the representative of their choice.

Now, Marshall, this ruling does not state that political considerations should be completely excluded when a legislature draws electoral districts. But here the judges found North Carolina Republican lawmakers went way too far to gain a political edge. 

Marshall: The panel has given the General Assembly a tight deadline to fix these maps.

Tom: Just two weeks to be precise. And this is because the filing period for candidates is due to begin on February 12. That deadline is key if the May 8 primary is to take place as scheduled.

And, today the General Assembly will convene an already-scheduled special session. There's no published agenda as of yet but if lawmakers are to meet this deadline, they'll need to get started now.

Marshall: What happens if they don’t meet the deadline?

Tom: The judges have an insurance policy for this. Next week they will appoint an independent special master to redraw all the state's congressional districts on their own under the same deadline. This plan is the only part of the ruling which was not unanimous. The judge appointed by a Republican president disagreed with the need for the special master to start work until after the court sees what the General Assembly comes up with.

Marshall: What has been the political reaction to this ruling?

Tom: It has gone along party lines as you would expect. In an interview with the New York Times, Wayne Goodwin, the Chair of North Carolina's Democratic Party  called the ruling "a major victory for North Carolina and people across the state whose voices were silenced by Republican attempts to rig the system."

Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, accused Judge Wynn of "waging a personal, partisan war on North Carolina Republicans."