(CN) — The Supreme Court on Monday upheld a lower court ruling that struck down 28 state House and Senate districts in North Carolina because they violated the rights of black voters. But in a separate opinion the justices rejected the court's order to both redraw the districts and hold special elections by November.
The order came a week after the justices met behind closed doors to decide whether to take up the case filed by 31 North Carolina residents in 2015.
In August 2016, a panel of three federal judges found that 28 of the state’s House and Senate were unconstitutional because the lawmakers who drew up the districts relied too heavily on race to create them. The panel order new maps drawn by March 2017 and elections in any new districts held in special elections later this year.
But the Supreme Court on Monday was critical of this approach. In its per curiam opinion, the court said the three-judge panel considered the costs of ordering special elections and other factors related to the gerrymandered districts "only in the most cursory fashion."
“(T)he court simply announced that ‘(w)hile special elections have costs,’ those unspecified costs ‘pale in comparison’ to the prospect that citizens will be ‘represented by legislators elected pursuant to a racial gerrymander,’” the order says. “That minimal reasoning would appear to justify a special election in every racial-gerrymandering case – a result clearly at odds with our demand for careful case-specific analysis. For that reason, we cannot have confidence that the court adequately grappled with the interests on both sides of the remedial question before us.”
In this, the justices agreed with the Republican state lawmakers who sought the high court review. In court filings last month, the lawmakers said it would be highly difficult "if not entirely unrealistic" for them to successfully redraw the districts and hold elections in any new districts they create as early as November.
The action by the justices sends the matter back to the lower court, which could order new districts in time for the regular cycle of elections in 2018.
The districts were initially drawn in 2011 when Republicans controlled the legislature and the governor's office. Civil rights groups and black voters challenged the districts, complaining that they packed too many black voters into some districts to make surrounding districts whiter and thus more likely to elect Republicans.
Democrats hope new district maps will help them break the Republican stranglehold on the state legislature.
Democrats need to capture three House seats or six Senate seats currently held by Republicans to eliminate the GOP's veto-proof majorities. That would enhance the power of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which represented the redistricting challengers, said in a statement that "the court previously called for holding elections later this year in newly drawn districts. We think there is still time to implement special elections in the impacted districts, and we will do everything we can to make sure that happens.”
“Many North Carolinians have been participating in unfair elections in racially gerrymandered districts for far too long. It’s time to fix this problem," Earls said.
Monday's ruling is the third Supreme Court decision in five weeks on lawsuits challenging the North Carolina maps drawn in 2011 after the 2010 Census.
In May, a divided court ruled that two of the state’s congressional districts were illegal racial gerrymanders.
Then, just last week, in light of that ruling, they sent a separate lawsuit challenging both the congressional and legislative districts back to the state Supreme Court for a third review.
The state court on two previous reviews upheld the districts, saying that while it was clear race played a role in the drawing of the district lines, the lawmakers had done so in an attempt to comply with the Voting Rights Act, not skirt it.
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