The US Supreme Court on Tuesday temporarily blocked a lower court ruling that had directed North Carolina legislators to redraw state legislative districts by March 15 and hold special elections within the altered districts this fall.
The court order granted the request of North Carolina Republican legislative leaders and state officials to delay November's ruling by a three-judge panel. The panel last summer threw out 28 state House and Senate districts as illegal racial gerrymanders.
The Supreme Court says its order will stay in place at least until the court decides whether to hear an appeal the state previously requested. If the justices take up the case, the stay will remain in effect pending a decision.
If no special elections are required, the next round of General Assembly elections would be held in late 2018. The GOP currently holds majorities large enough to override any vetoes by newly installed Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. Special elections could give Democrats a chance to narrow those margins and give leverage to Governor Cooper.
The delay comes in an atmosphere of intense political division in the state: On Tuesday, the governor expanded the scope of a lawsuit he previously had filed seeking to overturn laws GOP legislators passed to limit his powers just two weeks before he was sworn in.
The voters who sued over the maps alleged that Republican lawmakers drew the boundaries to create more predominantly white and Republican districts by effectively cramming black voters into adjacent Democratic districts. GOP lawmakers said the majority-black districts were drawn to protect them against lawsuits alleging they violated the US Voting Rights Act.
The state's attorneys filed the request for a delay of the lower court's ruling with the US Supreme Court late last month. They noted that the Supreme Court already had heard oral arguments in lawsuits involving North Carolina's congressional districts, first struck down by a court last February, and state legislative districts in Virginia, and that its decisions in those cases are pending. The justices' eventual ruling could provide guidance about the use of race in North Carolina's maps, the attorneys said.
Requiring the remapping could have affected more than two-thirds of the 170 House and Senate districts, according to GOP leaders, meaning most lawmakers elected to two-year terms in November would actually only serve one year. Republicans at the legislature have been suspicious of other court rulings striking down boundaries that have been upheld in state court.
"We are grateful the US Supreme Court has quashed judicial activism and rejected an attempt to nullify the votes of North Carolinians in the 2016 legislative elections," House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger — two of the defendants in the lawsuit — said in a release.
Anita Earls, the chief attorney representing the voters who sued over the maps, wrote earlier this week to Chief Justice John Roberts asking that the redistricting and special elections remain in place, saying millions living in the gerrymandered districts drawn in 2011 shouldn't have to wait until the end of next year for constitutional representation. Her organization pointed out the underlying decision by the three judges declaring the districts unconstitutional remains in place.
"We continue to trust that the (lower) court's ruling will be upheld and new districts ultimately will be drawn that are not based on race," Earls said in a release.
In a final written argument to Roberts earlier Tuesday seeking the delay, attorney for the state Paul Clement said the requirement of special elections was "entirely unprecedented and entirely imprudent" given the circumstances.
"There will be no way to undo a special election that will have ousted duly enacted legislators and overridden several indisputably constitutional provisions of the North Carolina Constitution if this court grants review and reverses only after that election has occurred," Clement wrote.
Roberts, who considers emergency appeals for North Carolina, referred the state's request to the entire court for consideration, the order said. The justices will consider taking up the case when they meet during their Jan. 19 conference. Even if they agree to hear it, the case might not be heard until the court begins its next term in the fall.
Cooper narrowly defeated Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in November. In his expanded lawsuit Tuesday, the Democratic governor accused GOP leaders of violating the state Constitution by requiring his Cabinet secretaries to receive Senate confirmation and by forcing him to retain hundreds of McCrory's political appointees in government jobs. State judges last week put a hold on enforcing a law that would take elections oversight away from the governor and give it to the legislature.