North Carolina Supreme Court vacates state’s congressional, legislative maps

In a 5-2 decision on April 28, 2023, the North Carolina Supreme Court overturned a 2022 decision that the state’s enacted congressional and legislative maps were unconstitutional due to partisan gerrymandering. The court vacated the maps the legislature enacted in 2021 and the remedial maps used for the 2022 elections. In its ruling, the court said, “we hold that partisan gerrymandering claims present a political question that is nonjusticiable under the North Carolina Constitution. Accordingly, the decision of this Court in Harper I is overruled. We affirm the three judge panel’s 11 January 2022 Judgment concluding, inter alia, that partisan gerrymandering claims are nonjusticiable, political questions and dismissing all of plaintiffs’ claims with prejudice.”

The court’s order also said that the legislature’s original 2021 maps were developed based on incorrect criteria and ruled that the General Assembly should develop new congressional and legislative boundaries to be used starting with the 2024 elections: “Just as this Court’s Harper I decision forced the General Assembly to draw the 2022 Plans under a mistaken interpretation of our constitution, the Lewis order forced the General Assembly to draw the 2021 Plans under the same mistaken interpretation of our constitution…The General Assembly shall have the opportunity to enact a new set of legislative and congressional redistricting plans, guided by federal law, the objective constraints in Article II, Sections 3 and 5, and this opinion. ‘When established’ in accordance with a proper understanding of the North Carolina Constitution, the new legislative plans “shall remain unaltered until the return of” the next decennial census.”

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Anita Earls wrote, “To be clear, this is not a situation in which a Democrat-controlled Court preferred Democrat-leaning districts and a Republican-controlled Court now prefers Republican-leaning districts. Here, a Democratic-controlled Court carried out its sworn duty to uphold the state constitution’s guarantee of free elections, fair to all voters of both parties. This decision is now vacated by a Republican-controlled Court seeking to ensure that extreme partisan gerrymanders favoring Republicans are established.”

In February 2022, the Wake County Superior Court enacted congressional district boundaries drawn by three court-appointed redistricting special masters and approved legislative maps that the General Assembly redrew earlier that month. Both actions were in response to the North Carolina Supreme Court’s 4-3 ruling on Feb. 4, 2022, that the state’s enacted congressional and legislative maps violated the state constitution. These district boundaries were used for the 2022 elections.