GREENSBORO — A panel of federal judges turned the tables Monday on North Carolina’s upcoming congressional elections by reaffirming an earlier ruling that the state’s U.S. House districts stem from unconstitutional, gerrymandering aimed at helping Republican candidates.
The decision likely means the lawsuit initially brought by nonprofit advocacy group Common Cause North Carolina is heading back to the U.S. Supreme Court for additional review, leaving it unclear how the latest turn of events might affect the November elections.
“In such circumstances, we decline to rule out the possibility that the state should be enjoined from conducting any further congressional elections using the 2016 plan,” the judges said in a 2-1 decision.
The panel said it might be possible to draw completely new districts and hold a general election — without any primaries — so that representatives from those new districts could be selected “before the new Congress is seated in January 2019.”
“We continue to lament that North Carolina voters now have been deprived of a constitutional congressional districting plan — and therefore, constitutional representation in Congress — for six years and three election cycles,” the judges said.
Common Cause, the state Democratic Party, the League of Women Voters and a number of protesting voters are plaintiffs in the case. They contend that Republican majorities in both houses of the North Carolina General Assembly went to extremes in configuring the state’s 13 congressional districts so that GOP candidates had an unfair advantage in most of them.
The three-judge panel initially ruled in favor of the plaintiffs earlier this year, but state legislative leaders appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court eventually sent it back to the Greensboro-based panel to determine whether the plaintiffs had sufficient legal “standing” to press their case.
In Monday’s decision, the judges found that the plaintiffs did have a legitimate basis to pursue the case and put the General Assembly on notice that they were uncertain whether to give legislators another chance at redrawing the state’s congressional maps properly.
Instead, the panel said it might appoint a special master to complete the task and told lawyers for each side to file briefs addressing that and related issues by 5 p.m. Friday.
The Greensboro-based panel of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina is made up of appellate justice James Wynn Jr. of the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and District Judges W. Earl Britt and William Osteen, Jr.
Wynn and Britt were the majority, and Osteen agreed and dissented in part with their opinion.
The lawsuit arose from the GOP-led legislature’s second effort at redrawing the congressional map in a process that started out on the heels of the 2010 federal census.
In 2016, other judges invalidated legislators’ original 2011 map after finding that two of the 13 districts had been gerrymandered along racial lines.
GOP legislators went back to the drawing board and said they ignored race entirely in creating the current districts two years ago, substituting instead what critics say was extreme partisanship that resulted in Republicans now holding a 10-3 edge in the state’s congressional delegation.
Common Cause and the other plaintiffs filed the current lawsuit against the latest congressional map in August 2016.
Common Cause NC executive director Bob Phillips said in a written statement Monday evening that he was “pleased that a North Carolina federal court has once again stated what we have long believed, that extreme partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional. While we look forward to having our landmark case now go before the highest court in the land, it’s regrettable that North Carolinians this November likely will be voting in congressional districts that have been found unconstitutional.
“We the people deserve better.”