Updated 1:40 p.m. | June 28, 2018
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Thursday that lingering racial bias infected some General Assembly district boundaries approved last year, but its ruling leaves intact the district lines already used earlier this year for this fall's elections.
The justices ruled 8-1 it was proper for a lower-court panel of federal judges to determine that four state House and Senate districts drawn by the Republican-controlled legislature last August remained illegal racial gerrymanders.
Their order, however, also declared the panel went too far ruling other 2017 map changes in Mecklenburg and Wake counties violated the state constitution's prohibition of mid-decade redistricting.
With the help of an outside expert, the three-judge panel in January had redrawn the boundaries in and around those four racially-tainted districts and returned the Wake and Mecklenburg lines to configurations originally approved by the General Assembly in 2011.
The Supreme Court stepped into the case the week before General Assembly primary candidate filing began in February. It ruled the districts the lower court changed due to racial bias would be enforced while it considered the case, but temporarily blocked other district lines that were altered based on the state constitution.
Thursday's unsigned order essentially makes permanent that result. It means the districts used to elect nominees in the May primary should be the ones used in the November general election, and no special candidacy filing periods and elections are required.
Further alterations could have brought more uncertainty to the fall legislative elections in which Democrats seek to end the GOP's veto-proof majorities and give Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and allies more leverage.
Last year's remapping occurred after the same three-judge panel ruled for election advocacy groups and Democratic voters who claimed almost 30 districts drawn in 2011 relied too heavily on race.
"The people of North Carolina finally have assurance that the districts used in the 2018 primary will be used in the 2018 general election," said GOP state Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County, a co-author of the 2017 maps and lawsuit defendant. "We hope this stops the plaintiff's continued gamesmanship and overtly political litigation."
Allison Riggs, a lawyer representing the groups that sued over the maps, declared victory.
"We have finally achieved our clients' goals for this litigation: to eradicate the blatantly unconstitutional sorting of voters by race in North Carolina's state legislative districts," Riggs wrote.
The justices upheld the lower court's ruling that the General Assembly had failed to eliminate the vestiges of racial discrimination from the 2011 maps in two House districts and two Senate districts redrawn last year. Republican legislative leaders had argued that they used no racially-based voting data in the 2017 round of redistricting, so there could be no racial gerrymandering.
But the three-judge panel "turned up sufficient circumstantial evidence that race was the predominant factor governing the shape of those four districts," the justices' unsigned order reads. The defendants' insistence they didn't look at racial data "does little to undermine the District Court's conclusion."
The justices, however, wrote the three-judge panel — U.S. Circuit Judge Jim Wynn and District Judges Catherine Eagles and Thomas Schroeder — erred by going further by deciding Wake and Mecklenburg changes violated the state constitution.
Once the lower court "ensured that the racial gerrymanders at issue in this case were remedied, its proper role in North Carolina's legislative districting process was at an end," the order read.
In the lone dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote he would have ordered oral arguments in the case.
A separate challenge on the mid-decade redistricting argument is now in state court, which Riggs said she hopes will require changes before the 2020 elections.
While Lewis praised the finality of Thursday's ruling, lawyers representing Republican lawmakers actually asked the Supreme Court this week to order all 2017 districts be used in this year's elections in light of a new Texas redistricting ruling. That would have required new candidate filing and elections in several House and Senate districts this year.