The Supreme Court on Monday upheld a lower court ruling that North Carolina lawmakers relied too heavily on the race of voters when they drew state legislative districts in 2011, simultaneously vacating court-ordered special elections for 2017 meant to address the racial gerrymandering.
The nation's highest court affirmed a previous lower court ruling in North Carolina v. Covington that the state's Republican-led legislature used race as the predominant factor while drawing the General Assembly's district map without good reason.
Monday's ruling marked another blow for North Carolina's electoral rules. The Supreme Court ruled last month that two state House districts were gerrymandered based on race and struck down the state's voter ID law.
The Covington suit, brought by several North Carolina voters including plaintiff Sandra Little Covington, alleged that 28 state House and Senate districts were racially gerrymandered in an unconstitutional fashion. The districts, which had been redrawn in 2011 following the 2010 Census, were all majority black.
North Carolina argued in court that it was trying to comply with the Voting Rights Act.
The Supreme Court wrote in its unsigned opinion, without any noted dissents, that "by separate order, we have summarily affirmed the district court's ruling on the merits of the plaintiffs' racial-gerrymandering claims."
The high court's summary gave no reasons for its decision to uphold the lower court's ruling.
The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina first ruled on the case in August, finding that the districts were unconstitutionally gerrymandered. The court said it made "no finding that the General Assembly acted in bad faith or with discriminatory intent in drawing the challenged districts," adding that it did not "consider whether the challenged districts involved any impermissible ‘packing' of minority voters."
But the district court found that North Carolina lawmakers violated the Equal Protection Clause by relying too heavily on race while drawing the districts.
The court required North Carolina to redraw the districts prior to any elections following the November 2016 election.
Three weeks after the 2016 election, however, the district court shortened the term of state legislators elected in any of the 28 districts in question to one year (instead of the usual two) and ordered special elections to be held in the fall of 2017. At the time, the district court justified its remedy by insisting that "While special elections have costs, those costs pale in comparison to the injury caused by allowing citizens to continue to be represented by legislators elected pursuant to a racial gerrymander."
But the Supreme Court vacated the special election order, agreeing with North Carolina that "the district court failed to meaningfully weigh any equitable considerations."
"Although this court has never addressed whether or when a special election may be a proper remedy for a racial gerrymander, obvious considerations include the severity and nature of the particular constitutional violation, the extent of the likely disruption to the ordinary processes of governance if early elections are imposed, and the need to act with proper judicial restraint when intruding on state sovereignty," the Supreme Court opinion read.
The district court's dismissal of the costs of a special election "would appear to justify a special election in every racial-gerrymandering case—a result clearly at odds with our demand for careful case-specific analysis," the opinion added.
"Rather than undertaking such an analysis in this case, the district court addressed the balance of equities in only the most cursory fashion," the high court continued. "For that reason, we cannot have confidence that the court adequately grappled with the interests on both sides of the remedial question before us."
Commenting on the Supreme Court's ruling, North Carolina lawyer and National Review contributor T. Greg Doucette said the special election order was a "dramatic remedy that surprised a lot of us on both sides of the aisle."
It was a dramatic remedy that surprised a lot of us on both sides of the aisle when it came down
— T. Greg Doucette (@greg_doucette) June 5, 2017
It is unclear whether there will be a special election; the matter has been returned to the district court for further consideration.
Rick Hasen, a professor of law at the University of California Irvine who maintains a noted election law blog, suggested that the district court may still order special elections but the window for doing so is shrinking.
Hasen also wrote that the ruling may lead to more special election requests from plaintiffs, not fewer.
"With this new multipart test (‘the severity and nature of the particular constitutional violation, the extent of the likely disruption to the ordinary processes of governance if early elections are imposed, and the need to act with proper judicial restraint when intruding on state sovereignty") I would expect plaintiffs to now ask for special elections more regularly and courts applying these sensible factors," he wrote.
UPDATED 1:31 P.M.: This post was updated to clarify that the Supreme Court's summary of its ruling did not give any reasons why it decided to uphold the lower court's ruling. The original version said the high court did not provide any reasons at all, but the ruling is not publicly available yet; only the summary is.