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North Carolina legislators will not have to redraw the state’s congressional districts by next Wednesday as ordered last week by a three-judge panel.

In a terse, two-paragraph ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Republican leaders of the North Carolina General Assembly and said Thursday that the remapping process ordered by the Greensboro-based panel “is stayed pending the timely filing and disposition of an appeal in this court.”

Thursday’s order said that Chief Justice John Roberts had referred the issue to the full court for a decision on the North Carolina legislators’ petition to delay the panel’s order.

Of the nine justices, only Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor favored denying the stay and forcing legislators to draw new districts devoid of excessive partisan gerrymandering, according to the high court’s order.

The lawsuit was brought by Common Cause North Carolina, the state League of Women Voters, the state Democratic Party and others claiming that millions of voters had been disenfranchised by the Republican-led General Assembly’s allegedly extreme partisanship.

The high court decision late Thursday does not render a final opinion on that claim, but it is a setback for the plaintiff groups that hoped to assure new districts would be in place for the November elections.

The Supreme Court decision overturns one made last week on the same narrow issue by the three-judge panel, which had rejected the General Assembly’s argument that before drawing new maps, it made sense to await the outcome of similar cases from other states already pending before the high court.

The stay request decided Thursday was the opening salvo in the North Carolina legislators’ larger appeal to the high court that seeks to overturn the Greensboro-based panel’s more sweeping conclusion, which held that the state’s current congressional districts stem from unconstitutional levels of partisanship tilted in favor of Republican candidates.

Advocacy groups behind the lawsuit were disappointed Thursday evening, but held out hope the Supreme Court would take their side in the end on the appeal’s larger, still unsettled issue.

“This fight is far from over,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina. “We are confident that the court will ultimately agree that the legislature’s extreme partisan gerrymander violates the constitutional rights of North Carolina citizens.”

But members of the GOP leadership in Raleigh expressed satisfaction with Thursday’s win. In a joint statement, state Rep. David Lewis (R-Dunn) and state Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Spruce Pine) criticized the lower court’s initial ruling as an unwarranted intervention.

“We are grateful that a bipartisan U.S. Supreme Court has overwhelmingly halted the lower court’s 11th-hour attempt to intervene in election outcomes,” Hise and Lewis said.

They added that the high court’s action “restored certainty to voters and ensured that, in the coming days, candidates for office can file in the least gerrymandered and most compact Congressional districts in modern state history.”

Hise and Lewis chaired their respective chambers’ redistricting committees, and Lewis was named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit under review was tried this fall in Greensboro, and led to a Jan. 9 finding by the three-judge panel that the Republican-controlled legislature had used excessive partisanship in gerrymandering new congressional districts two years ago. The efforts went beyond levels of permissible partisanship to ensure GOP candidates would win 10 of the state’s 13 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, the judges determined.

Along with that finding, the judicial panel ordered the General Assembly to adopt new maps that erased the gerrymanders by 5 p.m. on Jan. 24 — next Wednesday — and then submit those maps to the court within five days along with an extensive list of supporting data.

In addition to Lewis, the lawsuit by Common Cause and the other groups named three, current and former prominent Republicans who played key roles in the redistricting process, including state Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Eden), state House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain) and former state Sen. Robert Rucho (R-Matthews).

The judicial panel of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina that ruled against the General Assembly included district judges William Osteen Jr. of Greensboro and Earl Britt of Raleigh, along with Judge James Wynn Jr. of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The question of whether partisanship in drawing electoral lines is unconstitutional or tolerable to a certain extent remains unsettled in the United States courts.

Advocates on both sides of the issue are looking to the North Carolina case, as well as others pending before the high court from Wisconsin and Maryland, to eventually provide some clearer guidance on what is permissible.

Because of its potential significance beyond the borders of North Carolina, the legislative defendants’ stay request drew interest from several other GOP-led state governments that submitted briefs urging the Supreme Court to grant the stay as requested by their North Carolina counterparts.

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Contact Taft Wireback at 336-373-7100 and follow @TaftWirebackNR on Twitter.

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