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Voting rights rally
Protesters attend a rally for fair voting maps on March 26, 2019 outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

In 'Momentous' Ruling, Supreme Court Rejects GOP Voting Maps

While North Carolina and Pennsylvania will use evenly-split electoral maps for the midterm elections, the court's right-wing majority appeared eager to rule further on whether state courts can reject partisan maps.

Julia Conley

Voting rights advocates in North Carolina and Pennsylvania celebrated a victory late Monday after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected district maps that had been approved by Republican-led state legislatures and that critics said would give the GOP an unfair advantage in the midterm elections.

"Today's move by the court reinforces that legislatures do not have a 'free pass' to violate protections against partisan gerrymandering when drawing districts that undeniably hurt voters."

The ruling will allow voters in the two states "to vote in free and fair congressional elections this year," Stanton Jones, an attorney who represented voting rights groups that challenged North Carolina's gerrymandered map, told the New York Times.

Republicans in North Carolina had asked the high court to restore a previously drawn map which gave the GOP at least 10 of the state's 14 House seats, even though the state's voters are roughly evenly split between the two major political parties.

Instead, the court ruled 6-3 in favor of a replacement map that was approved last month by the state Superior Court. The new map was drawn by a nonpartisan panel of experts on redistricting and gives Democrats and Republicans six likely "safe" seats while two will be more competitive.

Voting rights groups argued that state Republicans who asked the Supreme Court to block the use of the new map were violating state laws against partisan redistricting.

"Today's move by the court reinforces that legislatures do not have a 'free pass' to violate protections against partisan gerrymandering when drawing districts that undeniably hurt voters," said Hilary Harris Klein, senior counsel for voting rights at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ), which represented advocacy group Common Cause in the case. "North Carolinians can now expect to vote in elections under fair congressional maps free of back-door dealings, extreme partisanship, and racial discrimination.”

SCSJ called the ruling "a momentous decision protecting North Carolina voters and the rule of law."

In Pennsylvania, Republicans argued that the state Supreme Court was acting outside of its authority when it ruled last month that the state should use a new congressional map giving the GOP nine relatively "safe" seats and Democrats eight.

State Republicans had wanted Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf to approve a map which had "a clear Republican advantage," according to Spotlight PA.

"Yesterday's decision from the Supreme Court of the United States is good news for Pennsylvanians," said Khalif Ali, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania. "The Supreme Court upheld the rule of law, including decades of settled precedent and practice governing the role of state supreme courts in the redistricting and elections processes. We will continue to monitor this litigation because all Pennsylvanians deserve voting maps where their voices can be heard."

While rejecting state Republicans' demand that the court step in to block the use of the new map, the justices referred the case to a three-judge court and said "the parties may exercise their right to appeal from an order of that court granting or denying interlocutory injunctive relief."

Advocates warned that the Supreme Court's right-wing majority signaled that it may later rule that state courts cannot change congressional maps that are drawn by state legislatures. Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch wrote in a dissenting opinion that they believed the North Carolina map should have been blocked because the state Supreme Court may have violated the Constitution by overruling state lawmakers. While ruling with the majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh said in an opinion that the court should take up that question in a later session.

"There must be some limit on the authority of state courts to countermand actions taken by state legislatures when they are prescribing rules for the conduct of federal elections," Alito wrote.

The right-wing justices appear eager to rule "that whatever Republicans do is legal and whatever Democrats do is illegal," tweeted historian Erik Loomis.

If the court further considers whether state courts can nullify maps drawn by state legislatures, it would do so after the 2022 midterm elections.

The justices' potential consideration of the so-called "independent state legislature doctrine," which claims only state legislatures can decide how states conduct elections, is "terrifying," said David Nir, political director of Daily Kos.

While voters in Pennsylvania and North Carolina will go to the polls with evenly-split electoral maps in November, the right-wing justices's opinions may have "big implications for 2024," said Reuters reporter Lawrence Hurley.

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