(CN) – The U.S. Supreme Court put a freeze late Tuesday on a ruling that calls for North Carolina to hold special elections for legislative seats that were subject to a racial gerrymander.
State officials sought the stay as they appeal the Nov. 29 order from a three-judge panel in U.S. District Court.
Months ahead of the ruling, on Aug. 11, the panel ordered the Legislature to redraw 28 unconstitutional legislative districts – nine connected to the state Senate and 19 to the state House of Representatives.
Though the court allowed the Nov. 8 general election to proceed under the unconstitutional districts, it called for a special election for all affected offices in the next year.
“While special elections have costs, those costs pale in comparison to the injury caused by allowing citizens to continue to be represented by legislators elected pursuant to a racial gerrymander,” the Nov. 29 order said. “The court recognizes that special elections typically do not have the same level of voter turnout as regularly scheduled elections, but it appears that a special election here could be held at the same time as many municipal elections, which should increase turnout and reduce costs. A special election in the fall of 2017 is an appropriate remedy.”
By setting a deadline of March 15 to redraw the districts, the court noted it was giving lawmakers “longer than it took the 2011 legislature to redistrict the entire state.”
“This schedule also will allow the court enough time to consider whether the State has remedied its unconstitutional gerrymander and to act if it does not,” the ruling said.
Tuesday’s stay from the high court is just a paragraph long. It calls for the timely filing of a statement as to jurisdiction.
“Should such statement be timely filed, this order shall remain in effect pending this court’s action on the appeal,” the order states. “If the judgment should be affirmed, or the appeal dismissed, this stay shall expire automatically. In the event jurisdiction is noted or postponed, this order will remain in effect pending the sending down of the judgment of this court.”
Republicans in North Carolina cheered the Supreme Court's decision.
GOP State Rep. David Lewis, who is leading the fight to keep the current districts, tweeted Tuesday that the court had halted the "flawed, partisan, lower court ruling." he wrote.
But the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which is representing opponents of the current districts, released a statement, said it continues to believe the district court's ruling will be upheld.
"Today's action just puts everything on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court considers the appeal of whether the district court was correct to order special elections in 2017 ... new districts ultimately will be drawn that are not based on race."
Some Democrats, however, said uncertainty over what the justices will decide will make it more difficult to recruit prospective legislative candidates and raise public awareness about the special off-year elections.
Sen. Jeff Jackson tweeted Tuesday "This ruling means we don't know what's going to happen," adding that whether there's a 2017 election or not depends entirely on whether the justices agree to hear the appeal.
The Brennan Center for Justice notes that Supreme Court is expected to decide before June 2017 whether to hear North Carolina’s appeal.
Just a month ago, the high court heard oral arguments on an unrelated challenge to gerrymandered district lines in North Carolina.
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