WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Friday, Dec. 16, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled 4-3 to block the remedial North Carolina Senate map and uphold the remedial North Carolina House map. Both sets of maps were drawn by the General Assembly and approved by a trial court after the North Carolina Supreme Court struck down the initial versions for violating the state constitution back in February. Additionally, in today’s decision, the North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s rejection of the General Assembly’s remedial congressional map, which was ultimately replaced by a court-drawn interim map that was only in place for the 2022 elections. Today’s decision stems from a redistricting lawsuit, Harper v. Hall, in which multiple sets of plaintiffs challenged North Carolina’s legislative and congressional maps for being pro-Republican partisan gerrymanders that violate the North Carolina Constitution. Notably, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Moore v. Harper, in which the Court is poised to rule on the racial independent state legislature (ISL) theory, arose from the congressional map being challenged in this lawsuit; however, today’s decision only concerns the constitutionality of the challenged maps under the North Carolina Constitution, not the U.S. Constitution (nor does it address the ISL theory).
The path to today’s decision is long and winding. Following the North Carolina Supreme Court’s Feb. 4 decision that struck down the General Assembly’s legislative and congressional maps for being pro-Republican gerrymanders, the trial court adopted remedial state House and Senate maps passed by the General Assembly. However, the trial court rejected the General Assembly’s remedial congressional map and instead adopted an interim congressional map drawn by court-appointed special masters for the 2022 elections. After the remedial maps were adopted, both sets of remedial legislative maps as well as the interim congressional map were appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court. Specifically, various sets of plaintiffs appealed the remedial legislative maps, while the Republican legislative defendants appealed the court-drawn interim congressional map. The plaintiffs who appealed the legislative maps argued that these remedial maps were still partisan gerrymanders that violated the North Carolina Constitution. Concurrently, the Republican legislative defendants argued that the trial court erred in rejecting the General Assembly’s remedial congressional plan and replacing it with a court-drawn map. These Republican legislators simultaneously petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court in what ultimately became Moore v. Harper. After doing so, the Republican legislators attempted to dismiss their own appeal of the congressional map to the North Carolina Supreme Court, but the North Carolina Supreme Court did not rule on their request for dismissal before today’s ruling and ultimately denied this request in today’s opinion. The North Carolina Supreme Court held oral argument regarding these appeals on Oct. 4.
In today’s 4-3 opinion regarding these multiple appeals, a majority of the North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the “trial court’s rejection of the Remedial Congressional Plan [and] the trial court’s approval of the Remedial House Plan” but reversed “the trial court’s approval of the Remedial Senate Plan.” Regarding the remedial state Senate plan, the majority concluded that “the evidence strongly indicates that the [remedial state Senate plan] creates stark partisan asymmetry in violation of the fundamental right to vote on equal terms.” Furthermore, the court remanded the case back down to the trial court “to oversee the creation and adoption of a Modified Remedial Senate Plan that modifies Legislative Defendants’ Remedial Senate Plan only to the extent necessary to achieve constitutional compliance.” The majority reiterated throughout its opinion that the North Carolina Constitution enshrines the sacred right to vote, writing that “[o]ur Constitution’s Declaration of Rights vests in the people of this state the fundamental right to vote on equal terms…Therefore, when a districting plan systematically makes it harder for individuals of one political party to elect a governing majority than individuals of another party of equal size based upon that partisanship, it deprives a voter of his or her fundamental right to equal voting power.”
Notably, today’s decision in Harper v. Hall does not put an end to the Tar Heel State’s redistricting saga. Following today’s decision, the trial court is now tasked with overseeing the adoption of a new state Senate map. Additionally, the interim court-drawn congressional map was only in place for the 2022 elections, meaning that the General Assembly will need to draw a new one at some point in the near future. Finally, we can expect a decision in Moore v. Harper — the Republican legislators’ appeal concerning the congressional map that asks the U.S. Supreme Court to adopt the dangerous ISL theory — at some point in 2023.