North Carolina’s new Republican Supreme Court majority took the latest step in its power grab on Friday, reversing recent precedent that curbed partisan gerrymandering when the court was led by Democrats. The 5-2 decision, with the court’s two Democrats dissenting, said the state court can’t hear such gerrymandering claims, effectively condoning the anti-democratic election map-drawing practice because there’s supposedly no “judicially manageable” way to rule on it.
Friday's GOP-backed ruling paves the way for greater GOP electoral control in the state.
As it happens, Friday's GOP-backed ruling paves the way for greater GOP electoral control in the state. It also calls into question the status of a potentially dangerous elections case that’s pending at the U.S. Supreme Court with nationwide implications.
To be sure, Friday’s result in North Carolina was expected, but that doesn’t make it less extreme. I’ve written about how November’s state elections shifted control of the court from 4-3 Democrat to 5-2 Republican. After that GOP takeover, the court took the incredibly rare step of voting to reconsider prior rulings, including the gerrymandering case decided Friday. And it wasn't the only anti-democratic ruling that day from the state court, which also handed down pro-GOP decisions on voter ID and felon voting, also over Democratic dissent.
Dissenting from the gerrymandering ruling, Justice Anita Earls made plain the partisan state of play on her court. “Today’s result was preordained on 8 November 2022, when two new members of this Court were elected to establish this Court’s conservative majority,” she wrote. Contrasting the previous curbs on partisan gerrymandering and Friday’s ruling allowing it, Earls explained:
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.
Concluding her dissent, joined by Justice Michael Morgan, Earls called out the majority’s “shameful manipulation of fundamental principles of our democracy and the rule of law.” She wrote that she looks forward “to the day when commitment to the constitutional principles of free elections and equal protection of the laws are upheld and the abuses committed by the majority are recognized for what they are, permanently relegating them to the annals of this Court’s darkest moments.”
So the stakes in North Carolina are clear, with voters now less free to elect their leaders as they see fit. But what does Friday’s ruling have to do with a U.S. Supreme Court case?
Earlier this term, the justices heard argument in a related case from North Carolina involving the so-called “independent state legislature” theory, the fringe GOP-backed idea that could give state legislatures across the country unfettered control over federal elections. When the North Carolina court took that rare step to rehear the gerrymandering case, the U.S. Supreme Court raised the prospect of dismissing the related appeal, which still hadn't been decided by the justices. Now, Friday’s state court ruling could lead the justices to dismiss the case, called Moore v. Harper, before deciding it.
But if that U.S. Supreme Court appeal went away, would that be good or bad for voting rights? Reasonable minds can differ.
On the one hand, it’s always risky when this GOP-controlled U.S. Supreme Court decides important issues, as recent rulings on abortion, guns, voting and other subjects illustrates. But at the same time, the oral argument this term in Moore v. Harper suggested that the court wasn’t fully buying the GOP's fringe theory; so it’s possible that the justices were prepared to reject it, at least in its most extreme form. And of course, even if the justices dismiss the case and don't decide the theory's legality now, they could still do so at a later date, so dismissing it wouldn't mean that the issue disappears.
But when it comes to the case currently at the U.S. Supreme Court, the next step, for better or worse, is in the justices’ hands.