Court won’t force North Carolina redistricting this year

A panel of federal judges has dropped plans to force a redrawing of North Carolina’s congressional districts in advance of this fall’s midterm elections.

The decision Tuesday came after groups challenging the state’s district map said they opposed making such a change so close to the Nov. 6 contest.

“Having carefully reviewed the parties’ briefing and supporting materials, we conclude that there is insufficient time for this Court to approve a new districting plan and for the State to conduct an election using that plan prior to the seating of the new Congress in January 2019. And we further find that imposing a new schedule for North Carolina’s congressional elections would, at this late juncture, unduly interfere with the State’s electoral machinery and likely confuse voters and depress turnout,” Judges James Wynn Jr., William Osteen Jr. and W. Earl Britt wrote in a joint order.

The judges startled the state’s political establishment last week with an unusual order calling for the immediate replacement of the Congressional map, despite the fact that primary elections took place in May. The Aug. 27 order also spooked national Republican leaders because any redraw was expected to push more seats toward Democrats in an election where they are already expected to make inroads.

The court’s order last week didn’t make entirely clear whether a court-appointed special master would draw the new districts the judges ruled were necessary or whether the state legislature would get another shot at doing so. The judges even suggested it was possible new primaries would be held.

However, plaintiffs in the case like the League of Women Voters and Common Cause told the court in a brief last Friday that it would be unwise to force those kinds of changes on such short notice.

“Attempting to impose a new districting plan in time for the 2018 election would be too disruptive and potentially counterproductive,” attorneys for the groups wrote. “Statewide redistricting just weeks before Election Day would not be a good-government solution.”

North Carolina officials had already appealed last week’s decision to the Supreme Court, but it was unclear whether the justices would step in, particularly because the high court is currently shorthanded and even divided between Republican and Democratic appointees.

The three-judge court’s action reduces the urgency of that dispute, although the Supreme Court may well hear arguments in the case again once it returns to nine justices. The high court ruled on the case in June, but didn’t resolve the legality of the map at issue. Instead, the justices told the lower court to take another look at whether those challenging it had legal standing to do so.

The three judges below concluded that the challengers did have standing. The court stood by its previous ruling that Republican state legislators violated the First Amendment and the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment when they drew congressional lines that favored their party. Ten of the state’s 13 House districts are held by Republicans.

Wynn, an Appeals Court judge, was appointed by former President Barack Obama. Britt, a District Court judge, was appointed by former President Jimmy Carter. Osteen, also a District Court judge, is an appointee of former President George W. Bush.