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Federal Court Says NC Needs New Congressional Maps Before Midterm Elections

Image of three different maps of North Carolina, with different districts.
Courtesy of Jonathan Mattingly

A federal court ruling could have a major impact on Congressional elections this fall.

A three-judge panel ruled Monday that North Carolina's Republican-controlled General Assembly gerrymandered 12 of the state's 13 districts with such extreme partisanship that the maps violate the equal protection and First Amendment rights of non-Republican voters.
The majority opinion lamented that North Carolina voters have been deprived of a constitutional congressional districting plan for six years and three election cycles.

These maps originally were discarded because of racial gerrymandering. After being redrawn they went to the U.S. Supreme Court but came back for review on the issue of partisan gerrymandering.

"The feeling in North Carolina is that all politics now ends up in the courts, and everything is subject to change," said Mac McCorkle, a longtime political consultant to Democrats who now teaches at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy.

But McCorkle said litigation is the consequence of Republicans trying to preserve political power at all costs.

"I don't think they're seeing the fruits of that is just more instability, more distrust, more imbalance and you need to kind of come to a stability point or a balance point in politics," he said.

Republicans say it's the judges who are politically motivated, in particular the one who authored this week's decision.

Judge James Wynn was appointed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals by President Obama.

“After court shopping since 2011, the plaintiffs finally found an activist judge, who happens to be an Obama appointee, to issue an unprecedented opinion based on unfounded judicial precedent less than three months before an election," said Pat Ryan, a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, in an email statement.

"The decision throws North Carolina into chaos causing maximum voter confusion, and suggests that a court can deny North Carolina citizens their right to vote in November," Ryan added.

Republican lawmakers have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the federal court's order.

But Senator Ralph Hise, a member of the General Assembly's Republican leadership and a key figure in the drawing of the district maps, noted the stay request will be reviewed by a court evenly divided between four conservative and four liberal justices, while nominee Brett Kavanaugh waits to see if and when he'll get a hearing before the U.S. Senate to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy.

"The timing of the decision, the directives in the decision, to throw out an election, to do so this late in the campaign, to do so, you know, targeted to reach a stalemate Supreme Court, I think all that plays clearly into this is a political objective that goes much further than a few judges looking at what the merits of the law is," Hise said, in a telephone interview.

The parties have until Friday to file briefs on whether the court should allow elections under the 2016 maps.

The court also raised the possibility of conducting new congressional primaries this fall with a general election after the New Year.

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