By Jonathan Drew
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide whether Republican lawmakers relied too heavily on race when they redrew North Carolina’s congressional districts to give the GOP a powerful advantage in the swing state.
The justices added the case to their fall calendar — almost certainly too late to affect 2016’s remaining races. But in the years ahead, it could impact partisan efforts to create electoral districts aimed at swaying the balance of power in Congress and in state legislatures.
It could be heard in conjunction with a separate case challenging voting districts in Virginia, an election law expert said.
North Carolina’s GOP leaders deny factoring in race to an illegal extent, saying their 2011 map was designed primarily to give Republicans an edge and to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act.
Opponents argue that they unfairly stacked minorities into fewer districts after the 2010 Census in ways that diluted their influence.
A federal court ruled in February that race was the predominant factor in drawing two congressional districts, and ordered the state to quickly produce a new map for North Carolina’s 13 members of Congress. That map was used in an unusual, separate, June 7 congressional primary.
The Supreme Court denied the state GOP’s emergency request to intervene ahead of that primary, but key issues remain unresolved.
A ruling by the high court also should influence the outcome of a separate federal case challenging the districts used to elect North Carolina’s state legislators.
North Carolina’s status as a swing state belies the uneven split favoring Republicans in the state’s legislature and congressional delegation. Narrowly contested presidential races in 2008 and 2012 show that voter preferences are split fairly evenly statewide.
But the GOP used redistricting in 2011 to create veto-proof majorities of more than two-thirds of the seats in the state legislature, and the state’s congressional delegation now has 3 Democrats to 10 Republicans.
The case is McCrory v. Harris, 15-1262.
Several weeks ago, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a similar case, in which challengers argue that a 2011 districting plan for Virginia’s House of Delegates packed black voters into a dozen legislative districts, strengthening Republican control of neighboring territories.
The justices didn’t immediately set a date for hearing the two cases, which will likely be heard together or consolidated by the high court, according to Rick Hasen, a professor who studies election law at University of California at Irvine.
Hasen wrote on his blog that five of the eight justices appear sympathetic to such claims brought by minority voters against Republicans, based on a 2015 ruling in an Alabama case.
In the most closely watched of North Carolina’s June congressional primaries, Republican U.S. Rep. George Holding defeated fellow incumbent Renee Ellmers after outside groups poured in money for ads questioning her conservative credentials. Holding is expected to have a wide advantage over his Democratic challenger in November.