On Thursday, June 27, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the Rucho v. Common Cause case, dealing with gerrymandering in the state of North Carolina, essentially saying that federal courts should not be able to declare electoral maps unconstitutional.
The case deals with the practice of gerrymandering, which involves drawing electoral or congressional maps around certain geographic areas with the intent of dividing or grouping to give disproportionate advantage to certain political groups.
North Carolina currently has 13 districts, with 10 Republican and 3 Democratic representatives.
The court’s vote was split 5 to 4. The majority opinion was written by Chief Justice Roberts and joined by Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. The dissenting opinion was written by Justice Kagen and joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor.
Roberts argued that while he saw the districts as “highly partisan,” the claims of gerrymandering are a political issue and would be out of place for courts to decide. Furthermore, any decision by the court would be an “unprecedented expansion of judicial power.”
“The districting plans at issue here are highly partisan, by any measure,” Roberts wrote. “The question is whether the courts below appropriately exercised judicial power when they found them unconstitutional as well.”
Steven Greene, professor of political science at NC State, gave some context to the court’s decision, saying the idea that courts should stay out of political matters is not new.
“Sometimes the court does say, essentially, this is simply not the place for courts, but for issues to be worked out between executive and legislative branches,” Greene said.
While a national Supreme Court decision may not be a possible solution to gerrymandering issues, Greene said state courts may be able to make such decisions.
“State courts can under their own state constitutions. That's what happened in [Pennsylvania], and there's a strong challenge here in N.C. based on our state constitution.”
Jonathan Mattingly, chair of Duke University’s Department of Mathematics, created models to demonstrate gerrymandering effects and strength. The research was presented to the Supreme Court, according to Duke’s website.
While North Carolina has 10 Republican and 3 Democratic representatives, individual votes were split much more evenly, with 47% going to Democrats and 53% going to Republicans in 2016.
Through computer models, Mattingly generated over 24,000 similar congressional maps with 13 districts that could be used in North Carolina, using “realistic and non-partisan criteria.” Additionally, he found that no generated map would give Democrats fewer than three seats.
Corroborating Mattingly’s findings, WRAL reported in January that Rep. David Lewis, a Republican from Harnett County who co-chaired the redistricting process, said “I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”
In the dissenting opinion, Justice Kagen strongly argued that the majority opinion was wrong to see the case as beyond the federal court’s oversight.
“For the first time ever, this Court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities,” Kagen wrote. “The partisan gerrymanders in these cases deprived citizens of the most fundamental of their constitutional rights: the rights to participate equally in the political process, to join with others to advance political beliefs, and to choose their political representatives.”
North Carolina’s current congressional districts have previously been deemed unconstitutionally gerrymandered in a way to favor Republicans over Democrats by federal judges. Judge James A. Wynn Jr. of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit wrote in the decision that this has been a problem for several years now.
“We continue to lament that North Carolina voters now have been deprived of a constitutional congressional districting plan—and, therefore, constitutional representation in Congress—for six years and three election cycles,” Wynn’s decision states
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said in a statement that “the fight against extreme partisan gerrymandering that undermines democracy moves to state courts and the ballot box...The battle is far from over,” The News & Observer reported.