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Court blocks North Carolina redistricting and special elections, at least temporarily

Just a little over a month ago, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in a challenge to two North Carolina congressional districts, one of which a lower court had described as a “textbook example of racial gerrymandering.” One of the lasting impressions from that oral argument (as well as the Virginia redistricting case that was argued on the same day) was that the justices seemed to be tired of redistricting cases. But today the justices got involved (at least temporarily) in yet another redistricting case, once again from North Carolina, as they agreed to put on hold a lower court’s order that would have required the state to draw new maps and hold special elections this year to redress what the lower court found to be racial gerrymandering.

The case before the court today involves allegations that state, rather than federal, legislative districts are unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. A three-judge federal district court agreed last summer with the challengers and struck down the plans. With the November 2016 elections only a few months away, the district court allowed the elections to go forward using the existing maps. However, last November the district court also ordered North Carolina to draw new legislative maps by March 15 of this year and hold special elections in the fall.

State officials have asked the justices to review the merits of the lower court’s ruling that the current maps violate the Constitution, and that request will be before the justices at their conference next week. But on December 30, they also asked the court to block the lower court’s order requiring new maps and special elections, and it was that request which the court – without any noted dissents – granted today.

In their brief asking the court to step in, North Carolina officials characterized the district court’s order as “an extraordinary incursion on state sovereignty” – particularly when, they observed, “it is highly debatable whether any constitutional violation even occurred.” Unless the court blocks the order, the officials explained, legislators in the new session – which begins tomorrow – will have to spend “the most critical first few weeks” coming up with a new plan and then begin campaigning, even though the Supreme Court could soon rule that the existing plan passes constitutional muster.

North Carolina needed at least five of the eight justices to vote to block the lower court’s order. There is no way to know whether today’s order by the Supreme Court – which indicated that the stay will remain in effect until state officials can file, and the court can act on, a request to review the district court’s order – received the support of all eight justices or whether (as is more likely) some justices simply declined to record their dissent from the order publicly.

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Court blocks North Carolina redistricting and special elections, at least temporarily, SCOTUSblog (Jan. 10, 2017, 5:45 PM),