Lawsuit currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court over whether North Carolina state courts are permitted to review federal election regulations enacted by the state Legislature under the Elections Clause of the U.S. Constitution. In taking up this case, which originated as a lawsuit in North Carolina state courts involving the state’s congressional map, the U.S. Supreme Court has opened up review of the radical independent state legislature (ISL) theory. This right-wing legal theory advanced by the Republicans in this case suggests that the Elections Clause gives state legislatures exclusive authority to set federal election rules, including drawing congressional maps, free from interference from other parts of the state government such as state courts and governors.
Lawsuit filed in state court on behalf of the plaintiffs from Harper v. Lewis challenging the state’s new congressional and legislative maps drawn with 2020 census data. The complaint argues that the maps are extreme partisan gerrymanders that entrench Republican power in violation of the North Carolina Constitution. The complaint points out that, similar to the past map that was blocked, the congressional map creates 10 safe Republican districts and three safe Democratic districts (plus one competitive district after the state gained a seat following the 2020 census) despite the fact that the state is closely divided between Republicans and Democrats. The state Senate and House maps also “pack” and “crack” Democratic voters in order to solidify Republican power, according to the complaint. The case was consolidated with a related case, North Carolina League of Conservation Voters (NCLCV) v. Hall. Additionally, Common Cause, which initially brought claims in North Carolina NAACP v. Berger, intervened in the case as plaintiffs.
After a trial was held on Jan. 3-6, the trial court ruled that partisan gerrymandering claims are not justiciable — meaning suitable for North Carolina courts to rule on — and the plaintiffs did not show any intentional racial discrimination or racial vote dilution and upheld the new maps.
The parties appealed this decision to the North Carolina Supreme Court, which held oral argument on Feb. 2. On Feb. 4, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that partisan gerrymandering violates the North Carolina Constitution and struck down both the legislative and congressional maps for being unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders that violated the North Carolina Constitution. The court concluded that partisan gerrymandering claims are justiciable and any map “that diminishes or dilutes a voter’s opportunity to aggregate with likeminded voters to elect a governing majority…infringes upon that voter’s fundamental right to vote,” explicitly rejecting the lower court’s and Republican defendants’ notion that partisan gerrymandering is allowed under the state constitution.
Following the state Supreme Court’s ruling, the trial court adopted remedial plans: new state House and Senate remedial maps passed by the General Assembly and a congressional map drawn by court-appointed special masters. The congressional map will only be in place for the 2022 elections. After the remedial congressional map was adopted, Republicans in the North Carolina Legislature filed an emergency application asking the U.S. Supreme Court to replace the remedial map with their own, arguing that the state court system could not mandate congressional redistricting. The Supreme Court denied the emergency request. On June 30, however, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in full.
On June 27, the plaintiffs appealed the remedial state Senate map enacted by the General Assembly to the North Carolina Supreme Court, arguing that the it is a pro-Republican gerrymander. Litigation is ongoing.
On Wednesday, Feb. 2, the full North Carolina Supreme Court heard oral arguments regarding the constitutionality of the state’s maps after the plaintiffs appealed the trial court’s decision. The arguments focused largely on what level of partisan gerrymandering, if there even is a limit, is allowed under the North Carolina Constitution. The appellants (the parties who appealed the trial court’s decision) argued that partisan gerrymandering explicitly violates the state constitution and its premise of “free and fair elections.” They argued that, under a gerrymandered map, “the leaders already in power manipulate the district lines to subvert the will of the people. They classify voters on the basis of their political beliefs and then systematically sort the minority party’s voters into districts…to minimize their electoral influence. The intent and effect is to predetermine the outcome of elections and entrench the majority party in power, regardless of how the people vote.” In response, the lawyers representing the Republican appellees argued that “the General Assembly is allowed to draw districts for partisan advantage” and that there is no clear standard “between what partisan intent and lean is allowed and what partisan intent and lean is not allowed.” The appellees also suggested that the court shouldn’t strike down the maps because, if they do, people will think that the court is a “partisan actor” and the court “has an obligation to protect the reputation of the court.” In rebuttal, the appellants reminded the court that it “really is the only check [of gerrymandering] here. Elections can’t provide a check, the governor can’t provide a check, amendments aren’t available and it will only get worse if this court gives the General Assembly a blank check [to gerrymander].”
We heard closing arguments from the plaintiffs and defendants. Summaries of their statements are outlined below. The trial court panel, consisting of two Republican judges and one Democratic judge, must rule on the constitutionality of the maps by Jan. 11. Any appeal will be heard by the North Carolina Supreme Court on an expedited basis.
The lawyer for the Harper plaintiffs, Elisabeth Theodore, reiterated that the new state House, Senate and congressional maps are partisan outliers that violate the North Carolina Constitution. She pointed out that the legislative defendants offered no defense of the new congressional map, which is expected to solidify a 10-4 Republican majority even if Democrats win up to 52% of the statewide vote. Theodore highlighted the key findings of the plaintiffs’ data and math experts, including that Dr. Pegden found that the “2021 congressional plan is more carefully crafted to advantage Republicans than over 99.9999% of the trillions of comparison maps he generated by making tiny changes to the precincts in the enacted map. In other words, the district boundaries are so carefully crafted that if you just touch it the Republican advantage evaporates.” The new state House and Senate maps were similarly found by experts to be partisan outliers, with “many of the challenged clusters in the House map were drawn in secret, behind closed doors, using unknown software and an unknown computer.” Theodore focused on the defendants’ expert, Dr. Barber, and argued that “Barber could have been an expert for the plaintiffs in this case. Using his own partisan index, he agreed the House and Senate maps are partisan outliers.” In summary, the plaintiffs’ experts offered overwhelming statistical evidence that the enacted maps were generated with pro-Republican bias. Theodore pointed to the information Rep. Hall revealed under oath — that, prior to his previous statements to the contrary, he engaged in daily strategy sessions outside map drawing room in private and used maps drawn outside the room — and highlighted that Hall was one of the few legislative defendants that waived his legislative privilege to talk about his actions during the redistricting process. The court and public do not know how the other legislative defendants who refused to waive privilege acted during the redistricting process. Theodore closed the Harper plaintiffs’ argument by highlighting that the gerrymandered maps have real effects on voters across the state who will not have their vote translated into representation over the next decade. She reiterated that the court should find that the enacted plans relied on too much partisan intent and strike them down.
The lawyer for the NCLCV plaintiffs, Zachary Schauf, opened by stating that “when we go to the polls to vote, we exercise the most fundamental right that our democracy has given us.” However, the enacted maps are partisan gerrymanders that all but render North Carolina elections over the next decade meaningless. Schauf pointed to the findings of one expert, Dr. Moon Duchin, who showed that the partisan geography of North Carolina does not explain district configurations and fairer maps can be created following the state’s redistricting criteria. Schauf reiterated Duchin’s point that “you don’t get that large and durable of an effect by accident.” Pointing to North Carolina’s history of racially polarized voting, Schauf argued that under the new maps Black voters will not be able to elect the candidates of their choice and they will be underrepresented at both the state and federal level, a harm that is “both profound and unavoidable.” Schauf defended the alternative maps put forth by the NCLCV plaintiffs.
Hilary Klein summarized the arguments and evidence of plaintiff Common Cause, asking the court to find that the new maps violate multiple provisions of the North Carolina Constitution. She pointed to expert Magleby’s conclusion that the enacted maps’ “partisan bias goes far beyond anything we’d expect based on North Carolina’s political geography.” Klein also critiqued the race-blind process the Legislature used during the process, stating that “it is cynical and pernicious to claim colorblindness.” This method, according to Klein, resulted in intentional racial discrimination that “consistently targeted and destroyed effective crossover districts” where Black voters previously had a chance to elect their candidates of choice. Klein also reiterated concerns with the overall map-drawing process, highlighting how Sen. Hise and Rep. Hall had clear strategies discernible in the evolution of their district drawings. Furthermore, the fact that Hall relied on maps provided by his aide — a 2020 law school graduate — that resulted in carefully crafted state House districts begs the question where and from whom this aide might have received help. Klein closed her arguments by stating that courts have a role to play in this process: ensuring that maps are in line with the North Carolina Constitution.
Philip Strach presented closing arguments for the defendants. Strach stated that the plaintiffs’ theories in this case are the real “threats to democracy.” He argued that the plaintiffs “concocted algorithms to tip the scale in favor of Democrats” and critiqued the experts and alternative maps put forth by the NCLCV plaintiffs. Strach specifically focused his criticism on the simulations and algorithms used by the plaintiffs’ data and math experts, arguing that there was a “man behind the curtain” controlling the algorithm to benefit Democrats. The fact that the plaintiffs and their experts did not take the legislative record into account also taints their arguments, according to Strach. Strach defended both Dr. Barber and Rep. Hall and stated that the enacted maps follow neutral redistricting criteria and the partisan geography of the state. In fact, if Hall wanted to gerrymander state House districts in favor of Republicans, Strach asserted that he could have done more to manipulate districts, so he clearly did not gerrymander in the first place. Strach also dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims of intentional racial discrimination, saying that race was used as a “last resort” pretext to try to get more Democratic votes. Summarizing experts, Strach stated that majority-Black districts aren’t necessary in North Carolina in order for Black voters to elect their candidates of choice — an assertion that was disproven by plaintiffs’ experts. To close out the defendants’ presentation, Strach tells the court that “politics are not a math problem” and repeated that it would be a “threat to democracy” for the court to remove redistricting power from the General Assembly and hand it to computers and the mathematicians who run them.
On the third day of trial, lawyers for North Carolina Republicans defended the new state House, Senate and congressional maps. They presented numerous experts that spoke about the makeup of the maps and the public learned that a legislative leader used “concept maps” created outside the public map-drawing room to aide drawing. The plaintiffs then called a few final witnesses to end the evidence portion of the trial.
Jeffrey Lewis, an expert for the defendants, was asked to look at racially polarized voting in North Carolina. He concluded that it’s possible to create districts in the state today that are not comprised of a majority-Black population but still elect Black voters’ candidates of choice. During cross examination, Dr. Lewis admitted that multiple districts that previously performed for Black voters no longer would after redistricting.
Michael Barber, a political science professor at Brigham Young University, took the stand next. Barber and the algorithm he used to analyze the enacted maps and NCLCV’s alternative maps were the focus of critique from many of plaintiffs’ experts. Barber, who does not have a background in math nor any published redistricting papers, defended his method of analysis, which was different than the methods used by other experts. During cross examination, Barber admitted that he misspoke during his deposition and, under the algorithm he used, the state House and Senate districts reflect partisan outliers in favor of Republicans. Barber also stated that partisan intent is one possible explanation behind how districts were drawn.
State Sen. Ralph Hise (R) spoke about his role during the redistricting process as co-chair of the Senate redistricting committee. Hise said the committee’s priority in drawing new Senate districts was to keep counties whole and no partisan data was used during the process. However, Hise admitted that he did not explicitly tell his staff or other legislators to not use partisan data nor ask if they had used it because everyone was “well aware” of the criteria to not rely on partisan data. Hise also answered that district lines that were drawn without any partisan or racial data that have the effect of favoring Republicans do not violate the state’s redistricting criteria.
State Rep. Destin Hall (R), a co-chair of the House redistricting committee, explained how he drew new state House districts in the public map-drawing room. Hall admitted to using “concept maps” drawn outside the courtroom to aide his drawing in the public map-drawing room, despite previous messages that all maps were drawn physically in the room without any outside help. The concept maps, which were destroyed and unavailable for viewing by the plaintiffs’ lawyers, allegedly helped speed up Hall’s drawing, but they were allegedly only used as a “frame of reference” to orient him. However, during his deposition, Hall stated that the concept maps were used as a “game plan” for his map drawing. Hall admitted that he did not know where his aide, Dylan Reel, drew the concept maps or if he consulted with any outside groups about the maps. Hall reiterated that he believed this round of redistricting was North Carolina’s most transparent.
The defendants called one final witness, Sam Hirsch, who is a lead lawyer for the NCLCV plaintiffs. Hirsch explained the background of the algorithm used to generate NCLCV’s alternative map proposals.
During their rebuttal, the plaintiffs called two final witnesses.
Jonathan Mattingly, whom we first met on Monday, spoke again about how he generated simulated maps and how they show that the enacted maps favor Republicans even as Democratic vote share increases. Mattingly also asserted that Barber misrepresented his research earlier in the day.
State Rep. Zack Hawkins (D), a member of the redistricting committee, explained how he found the redistricting process to be lacking transparency and how it was “not a process where fairness and equality would be the end goal.” Hawkins raised concerns about how race was being ignored during the process, believing that failing to look at racial analysis would harm Black voters.
In the second day of the trial, more experts spoke about North Carolina’s new state House, Senate and congressional maps. The plaintiffs finished questioning all their experts, who detailed how the new maps are partisan outliers that are likely to erode multiracial coalitions. The defendants also introduced their first expert.
Wesley Pegden finished up questioning that spilled over from Monday. He explained how he used an algorithm that starts with the enacted maps and makes small changes to see how fragile the districts are crafted to determine that the maps are extreme partisan outliers. This analysis does not consider “post hoc” rationalizations by the legislators about why they drew districts a certain way.
James Leloudis, a history professor at UNC Chapel Hill, outlined North Carolina’s long history of racial discrimination, particularly in voting laws and practices. Based on his analysis of the enacted maps, Leloudis concluded that they continue this tradition of racial discrimination by limiting the voting power of Black residents. Contrary to past redistricting cycles that sought to build coalitions to expand Black political participation and power, he states that the new maps are “unlikely to advance multiracial coalitions and may well undermine and impede them.”
Tyler Daye, an organizer with Common Cause North Carolina, testified about his experience tracking the state’s redistricting process during which legislatorsand aides would enter a public map-drawing room and draw districts on computers. Day concluded that the process was confusing, stressful and not transparent and it was unclear which materials and people were aiding the legislators.
Daniel Magleby, a political science and redistricting professor, analyzed new state House, Senate and congressional districts to determine if they represented partisan gerrymanders. He used an algorithm to generate 1,000 comparison maps. Regarding the congressional map simulations, Democrats carried five to seven congressional districts and 10% of the simulated maps produced a 10-4 map (what the enacted map is). While the algorithm drew a few maps in which Democrats won four seats, none of them exhibited a partisan skew to the same extent the enacted map did. Regarding the state House simulations, the most common outcome was 52 state House seats carried by Democrats, compared to 48 in the enacted plan. The enacted state Senate map is more extreme than all the simulations that Magleby’s algorithm generated.
Moon Duchin, a math professor at Tufts University who focuses on redistricting, found that the enacted maps exhibit and entrench a “quite large partisan skew” and diminish minority electoral strength. After comparing the enacted congressional map to six alternative plans, Duchin concluded that the enacted maps have an “egregious partisan imbalance” and are meant to “resiliently safeguard” a Republican advantage. Duchin emphasized that North Carolina’s redistricting criteria and geography don’t force a certain partisan outcome in maps, like the legislators claim.
The first witness for the North Carolina Republican defendants was Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at NC State. Taylor’s two main points were that the state’s redistricting process was transparent compared to other states and that the North Carolina Constitution does not explicitly ban partisan gerrymandering. Taylor argued that there is no historical association between redistricting and the state constitution’s provisions and there are many variables that need to be considered when evaluating district plans. During cross examination, Taylor suggested that those who want electoral change should do so through the political system and/or make constitutional amendments — meaning that the only recourse for voters who are concerned about redistricting is to persuade the legislators who are entrenched by redistricting to change their minds. Taylor also added that judges may need to step in to determine how much “discretion” legislators have regarding partisan gerrymandering.
During the first day of the trial, four of the plaintiffs’ experts testified: Jowei Chen, Christopher Cooper, Jonathan Mattingly and Wesley Pegden. Each expert was questioned by lawyers on both sides about their analyses and conclusions regarding the partisan breakdown of the new state House, Senate and congressional maps. Pegden will continue being questioned tomorrow morning.
Chen, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, focused on the new congressional map and its partisan breakdown in comparison to other map proposals. He generated 1,000 comparison maps using North Carolina redistricting criteria without any partisan considerations. Of the 1,000 simulations, 97% had less than 10 Republican districts, which is what the enacted map has. Chen also emphasized that the new map is a partisan outlier that cannot be explained by the state’s political geography or redistricting criteria laid out by the Legislature.
Cooper, a political science and public affairs professor at Western Carolina University, focused his analysis on the partisan effects of the new maps. Specifically, he pointed out that 75% of the state’s population growth over the last decade was concentrated in Democratic counties, but the new congressional map does not reflect that. Three of the state’s Democratic strongholds — Mecklenburg, Guilford and Wake Counties — were each unnecessarily split three times.
Mattingly, a math and statistics professor at Duke University, looked at partisan gerrymandering in the enacted state House, Senate and congressional maps and concluded that all maps show significant Republican bias and the chance that the maps weren’t drawn with partisan intent is “astronomically small.” Mattingly showed that, even when vote shares increase for Democrats under the enacted maps, the extreme partisan lean means that any increased vote share does not correspond into increased Democratic representation.
Pegden, a math professor at Carnegie Mellon University, used an algorithm to analyze the enacted state House, Senate and congressional maps and test how carefully crafted the maps were to ensure partisan bias. He concluded that the enacted maps were all extreme partisan outliers. His cross examination by the legislative defendants’ lawyers will continue tomorrow morning.
In their petition asking the Court to take their case, the North Carolina Republicans argue that the remedial congressional map in place for the 2022 election cycle, which was drawn by court-appointed special masters after the North Carolina Supreme Court struck down the legislature’s map for being an extreme partisan gerrymander, runs afoul of the Elections Clause. The respondents refute this fringe and unprecedented interpretation of the Elections Clause, arguing that state courts are not precluded from exercising judicial review of legislatively enacted congressional maps under the state constitution. In fact, they note that the North Carolina General Assembly itself passed a statute that explicitly authorizes North Carolina courts to review congressional redistricting plans. The respondents assert that, rather than giving state legislatures unlimited authority to set federal election rules and regulations, the Elections Clause permits “state legislatures [to] maintain primary redistricting authority, but the map-drawing pen may pass when a legislature—as here—fails to timely adopt lawful plans in advance of regularly scheduled elections.” A schedule for merits briefing and oral argument has not yet been set.
Case Documents (U.S. Supreme court)
Case Documents (NC supreme court)
Case Documents (trial court)