By Joseph Ax
(Reuters) – The new conservative majority on North Carolina’s top court will consider on Tuesday whether to overturn the court’s decision last year outlawing partisan redistricting, a move that would boost Republicans ahead of the 2024 congressional elections.
A reversal could be a mixed bag for Republicans, however. After the North Carolina Supreme Court decided last month to revisit the issue, the U.S. Supreme Court signaled it may sidestep a ruling in a related case in which Republicans have asked the justices to grant state legislatures sweeping new powers over federal elections.
The North Carolina Supreme Court’s then-Democratic majority threw out a Republican-drawn congressional map last year, ruling the state constitution does not permit lawmakers to manipulate district lines for partisan advantage, a process known as gerrymandering.
As a result, November’s midterm elections took place under a court-approved map, and Democrats and Republicans split the state’s 14 congressional seats evenly.
But Republican candidates flipped two of the court’s seats, giving conservatives a 5-2 majority. The new court agreed along party lines to rehear the redistricting case, as well as a case in which the previous Democratic majority struck down a Republican-backed voter identification law.
Legal experts say the decision to rehear the cases suggests the new majority is prepared to reverse the court’s prior rulings. A Republican-drawn congressional map would likely give the party three or four additional seats, helping to bolster a razor-thin majority in the U.S. House of Representatives next year.
“I think most folks who are watching this, myself included, would not be surprised or stunned if the decisions go in a partisan direction,” said Michael Bitzer, a professor at Catawba College and the author of a book about the state’s history of redistricting.
In court filings, Republican lawmakers argue that redistricting is inherently political and should be left to legislators, rather than judges. Good government groups, including Common Cause, have countered that gerrymandering harms democracy and that the court should not reverse rulings just because its partisan composition changed.
Last year’s redistricting decision also prompted North Carolina Republicans to turn to the U.S. Supreme Court in what has become a high-profile case.
The Republicans urged the U.S. Supreme Court to adopt a contentious legal theory, the independent state legislature doctrine, that would prevent state courts from reviewing lawmakers’ actions regarding federal elections, giving legislators unfettered authority over voting rules and redistricting.
Democrats have warned that doing so would invite a flood of new restrictions that would threaten fair elections, while Republicans say it would corral activist state courts that are undermining legislative power.
The Supreme Court’s conservative justices appeared sympathetic to the Republicans’ argument during oral arguments in December. But after the North Carolina Supreme Court’s decision to rehear the case, the U.S. Supreme Court asked the various parties in the case to weigh in on whether the court still has jurisdiction over the matter.
If the justices decide they no longer have jurisdiction, they could dismiss the case without issuing a ruling.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Rosalba O’Brien)