The North Carolina Supreme Court is rehearing arguments in a redistricting case it ruled on in December, when Democrats held a 4-3 seat advantage on the court that now has a Republican majority.
The newly-formed majority court, which gives Republicans a 5-2 advantage in its decision-making, on Tuesday heard arguments that could determine how state legislators create electoral districts that could help lock in their political power.
In December, the Democrat-leaning court threw out a state Senate map the GOP-led legislature had drawn and upheld congressional boundaries drawn by trial judges. That ruling stemmed from a landmark February 2022 decision declaring state courts had authority to dismiss voting lines that would give an upper hand to one party in a state that is narrowly divided among political parties.
The Democrat-majority court pointed to evidence that showed maps approved by the General Assembly in fall 2021 made it nearly impossible for Democrats to win majorities in the state legislature or Congress, even though the state is marked by closely divided statewide elections.
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The Republicans on the court at the time disagreed, saying the constitution doesn’t address partisan considerations in redistricting, so such decisions are left solely to lawmakers. Since then, the court’s majority flipped to the GOP after two associate justice election victories in November. Republican legislative leaders asked for the rehearing, which the new court granted.
The arguments marked the first of two days of rehearings for the justices. The same Republican majority also ordered a hearing for Wednesday on another 4-3 decision in December that upheld a trial court decision striking down a 2018 voter photo ID law.
While there is no timeline for when the court will rule, a favorable decision for the GOP legislative leaders could give them an easier time to draw legislative and congressional maps for 2024 and beyond with more favorable partisan tilts. While Republicans hold majorities in the General Assembly, the congressional delegation is split 7-7 after two more Democratic victories in November.
“The law cannot swing back and forth with every election,” said Rebecca Harper, a real estate agent and the lead plaintiff in the redistricting litigation. “I’m very very sad that we are back here fighting this same fight again because of what this court and this legislature are pushing for.”
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The North Carolina state legislature has been led by Republicans consecutively since 2011, with a Democrat serving at the helm of the state as governor since 2017.
Phil Strach, a lawyer for the GOP lawmakers, told the court on Tuesday that the 2022 decisions show that state courts lack the ability to calculate and determine political district maps.
“Some things, your honor, are beyond the power of this court,” Strach told Associate Justice Anita Earls, a registered Democrat. “Part of the reason this court does not have the power to address that issue is because it does not have the tools to answer the question.”
Earls cited evidence by a trial court last year from mathematicians that found the 2021 maps the General Assembly approved were more carefully crafted for Republican advantage than 99.9% — and in some cases 99.9999% — of all possible alternatives.
“And so you’re asking us to say that in spite of those facts, the North Carolina Constitution offers no protection to voters?” Earls asked. Strach said later that some actions are beyond other political branches to address, and that “sometimes it’s got to be left up to the people.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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