After key court victories against gerrymandering in NC, it’s time to enact lasting reform

RALEIGH – Partisan gerrymandering is illegal in North Carolina. Before the historic events of 2019, that statement may have been debated. Now it’s clearly the law of the land in our state, thanks to a landmark court victory this past summer in Common Cause v. Lewis.

But make no mistake – the work must continue to secure this win by enacting lasting reform. Otherwise, politicians will continue to test the legal limits of both racial and partisan gerrymandering, treating voters like pawns instead of constituents and undermining our right to choose our representatives in fair elections.

NC gerrymandering goes to the U.S. Supreme Court

Last year, North Carolina gerrymandering was in the national spotlight like never before, as the U.S. Supreme Court heard Common Cause v. Rucho.

We filed that lawsuit after Republican legislative leaders drew what was by their own admission an extreme partisan gerrymander of the state’s congressional districts, and we won decisively in federal district court against that map-rigging scheme.

But in June, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately handed down a disappointing 5-4 ruling, with Chief Justice John Roberts overturning our lower court victories by saying the federal judiciary wasn’t able to resolve the crisis of partisan gerrymandering – even as he conceded that gerrymandering “is incompatible with democratic principles.”

The fight for fair maps turns to state court – with historic success

And yet, while Chief Justice Roberts closed the door to federal courts taking on partisan gerrymandering, he pointed to the state judiciary as an appropriate avenue to tackle the issue.

And that’s exactly what we did in our separate case of Common Cause v. Lewis. Filed in state court, this lawsuit challenged partisan gerrymandering of legislative districts. At trial in July, our attorneys expertly proved how Republican legislative leaders undermined the fundamental rights of North Carolinians by manipulating voting maps to benefit their own party.

In September, the bipartisan panel of judges issued a unanimous decision in our case, ruling that partisan gerrymandering violates the North Carolina Constitution and ordering that new legislative districts be drawn following strict nonpartisan criteria.

The case marked the first time in North Carolina’s history that a state court ruled partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional, an immensely positive outcome that could reverberate for years to come.

A second state court victory, and a roadmap for other states

Inspired by that win, a group of North Carolina voters filed Harper v. Lewis in state court, challenging partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts. Among the plaintiffs was Common Cause NC member Becky Harper, for whom the lawsuit was named.

The same three-judge panel that issued the ruling in Common Cause v. Lewis presided over this new case. And just a few weeks later, the court blocked the use of North Carolina’s extremely gerrymandered congressional map in the 2020 election, prompting a redraw of the state’s U.S. House districts.

With these dual victories, North Carolina is now an example to other states. If the U.S. Supreme Court has foreclosed the option of fighting partisan gerrymandering in federal court, we’ve shown how to win in state court. That will be key to holding map-drawers of both parties accountable when the next round of redistricting happens in 2021.

The crucial next steps to end gerrymandering in North Carolina

Even with last year’s landmark legal triumphs, the fight to end gerrymandering in North Carolina is far from over. Time and again, we’ve clearly seen that politicians simply can’t be relied upon to draw fair districts.

The best way to stop gerrymandering is by permanently taking redistricting power away from partisan legislators and entrusting it with an impartial citizens commission that will draw our voting maps free from partisan politics, with full transparency and robust public input.

A half-dozen redistricting reform bills have been filed in the current 2019-2020 legislative session, several with broad bipartisan support. But sadly, Republican legislative leaders have not given any of these proposals the vote they deserve. And so it’s vital that North Carolinians across the state stand together and demand action by lawmakers to pass real reform this year.

We at Common Cause NC are not new to this fight. We’ve been advocating for reform for two decades, consistently calling for an end to gerrymandering when Democrats were in power and doing the same with Republicans in charge.

That long journey has brought us to this pivotal point. What happens in the next 12 months is crucial to finally establishing redistricting that puts people above politics. The state court and the constitution are with us. A growing bipartisan group of lawmakers are with us. And most importantly, the people of North Carolina are with us.

Together, let’s finish the fight and end gerrymandering for good.