Perhaps it wasn’t the best idea for Republican state legislators in North Carolina to openly admit that they were drawing partisan gerrymanders. “I acknowledge freely that this would be a political gerrymander, which is not against the law”—that’s how state Representative David Lewis, the chief GOP official in charge of redistricting, characterized the latest congressional maps. He’d been sent back to the drawing board in 2016 by a federal court, which said the previous maps he’d authorized constituted racial gerrymanders. So Lewis and his team, still seeking to maximize Republican advantage, opted to redraw districts along aggressively partisan lines instead.
Lewis’s legal analysis was clearly lacking, as a decision Monday by a panel of federal judges deemed his revised plan an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. Part of a labyrinthian series of court decisions spanning most of the past four federal election cycles, and involving multiple revisions of both state and federal maps, the judiciary’s latest blow to the North Carolina GOP might be the messiest, with midterms just around the corner. How will the decision influence the 2018 elections? How will the pending confirmation hearing of a new Supreme Court justice affect the decision? And just what does it mean that multiple legislative delegations have been elected in a state found repeatedly to have used unconstitutional means to decide who is represented, and how?
The federal challenge to Lewis’s latest maps, known as Common Cause v. Rucho, was one of several similar cases bouncing around federal courts, the most prominent of which was Gill v. Whitford, a challenge to Wisconsin’s districts that made it to the Supreme Court. A three-judge panel ruled against North Carolina in January before the high court finished considering Whitford, making it the first-ever federal court to rule against partisan gerrymandering. But the Supreme Court’s eventual decision in Whitford essentially punted on the issue, demanding that plaintiffs in Wisconsin meet a new evidentiary burden in order to gain standing. That punt also remanded Common Causeback to the federal panel, so the judges could reconsider it based on the guidelines established in Whitford.