Raleigh, NC — When the North Carolina Supreme Court decided along party lines to throw out new congressional and legislative voting maps highly favorable to Republicans, Democrats and voting rights groups heralded the high court’s action as a major win for voters.
But while it’s true the move is likely to boost Democrats’ prospects in the 2022 election and provide more equal representation to racial minorities, the celebration for liberals could be short-lived. The high court’s move sharpens focus on a pair of upcoming Supreme Court races and the possibility of a conservative court stepping into power and ruling the other way in a similar challenge.
Voting rights groups challenged the maps the GOP-controlled legislature approved in November, arguing the boundaries violated residents’ right to a free election and equal protection under the law and diminished Black voting power in the state.
Following Friday’s Supreme Court order, Republican lawmakers, nonpartisan experts and party officials on both sides of the aisle said the legislature can adjust the US House maps for greater political advantage after the 2022 election.
The prospect of expanded GOP power greatly increases if Republicans can retain control of the General Assembly and flip the 4-3 Democratic majority on the short this election cycle. One Democratic Supreme Court justice, Sam Ervin, is up for reelection, while a Democratic colleague of his, Robin Hudson, is not seeking reelection, paving the way for a possible 5-2 conservative court next year.
“Democrats have to be cognizant that if they lose a seat in November, the Republican majority on the state Supreme Court can certainly view any policy questions posed to it as an opportunity to seek retribution,” said Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political science professor .
Indeed, after the decision Friday, state Sen. Ralph Hise, a Republican who co-led the map-drawing process said in a statement that liberals will not be happy with the previous the high court’s justices set by intervening. “Democrats will come to regret it.”
The six GOP lawmakers listed on the lawsuit—Senate leader Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore, state Rep. Destin Hall and state Sens. Warren Daniel, Paul Newton and Hise—didn’t provide additional comment when requested through their respective chambers’ offices.
It remains to be seen whether state lawmakers could also retool state House and Senate maps ahead of the 2024 election and keep them in place for the remainder of the decade.
Such an action is open to one’s interpretation of the state constitution and could depend on whether the legislative maps Republicans are expected to redraw will receive a trial court’s approval. Also complicating future state boundaries is the possibility of Republicans appealing voting maps to the US Supreme Court—a pathway political observers believe is plausible but may be less likely to succeed.
Dallas Woodhouse, an analyst at the conservative John Locke Foundation think tank and former executive director of the state Republican Party, has a stark warning for Democrats.
“What goes around comes around,” he said. “Be careful what you wish for.”
Some Republicans have also hinted at the possibility of impeaching Supreme Court justices, which is a consideration party leaders do not widely embrace.
US Rep. Dan Bishop on Friday voiced his frustration with the court order striking down the voting maps, writing on Twitter, “The remedies for usurping power are 1-impeachment (and) 2-electoral defeat.”
Attention on judicial races grew when the GOP-controlled legislature decided in 2018 to reinstate partisan judicial elections, thus requiring Supreme Court candidates to have their political affiliation included next to their name on the ballot.
State Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat, said the public is tired of continued efforts to undermine the court system.
“The tweets alone suggest that there is more of a desire to push for partisanship and power grab, which I think that the general public is frankly sick of,” Chaudhuri said.
Michael Whatley, chairman of the NC GOP, thinks state lawmakers will redraw the congressional and legislative maps ahead of the Feb. 18 deadline the Supreme Court set in its order.
The lower court overseeing the redraw process could approve the legislature’s maps, appoint an independent expert to draw new maps or go with a plan put forward by voting rights groups. If Republicans don’t revise their maps, they could be left with further diminished power in Congress and the North Carolina General Assembly.
“I’m less interested in a tit-for-tat that, every other year, we’re going to be relitigating this based on whether the court is conservative or liberal, based on whether the legislature is Republican or Democrat,” Whatley said “You want to get these things locked in, and you want to move forward with them.”
Whatley also suggested Republicans may push to revisit the question of partisan redistricting under a more favorable judicial environment.
“The Democrats’ sue-to-blue agenda where they attack and sue every single set of maps that has come out over the course of the last few decades has thrown our voters into whiplash like we don’t see in other states,” Whatley said. “I want to make sure that we’re doing what we can to have a judiciary in place that is going to allow the the legislature to do its job, rather than interfering the way that this court just did.”
Asked if she expects Republicans to return to the drawing board ahead of the 2024 election to create new congressional or legislative lines, North Carolina Democratic Party Chairwoman Bobbie Richardson replied, “They want power. Why would they not do it?”
“We have been through this before and I hope they understand that the taxpayer dollars are being spent on frivolous court cases, so I will have to trust him,” Richardson said of Republicans. “But I also will be vigilant and make sure that we are prepared for whatever scenario that they throw at us.”
Chris Cooper, an expert witness for voting rights groups who spoke during a trial court hearing last month, said it’s unlikely that the congressional and legislative maps that will emerge in the next two weeks will remain in place for the next decade.
“We tend to have new maps in North Carolina more often than we hold the Olympics,” Cooper said. “Whether that continues during this next decade, we’ll have to see. I would like to believe that we can do better, that we can draw better maps and that we can have more permanent maps. But again, the recent past would suggest that that is unlikely.”
In the meantime, Bitzer, the Catawba College political scientist, notes that it’s up to Republicans to decide what to do next. While both major political parties have drawn maps for pure partisan gain for the last several decades, Bitzer said it is only in recent history that the issue has become what he considers a “brass knuckles partisan fight.”
“When you invest the court in partisan elections and people run on partisan party labels, nobody should be surprised by the partisan dynamics that come out,” Bitzer said.