The North Carolina Supreme Court on April 28 took the curious step of overturning its own 19-week-old decision despite there being no new evidence or material facts in the case.
The only things that had changed were the political makeup of the court — and the desire of a new Republican majority to overturn a decision on gerrymandered political maps made by the previous Democratic majority.
Whether you agree with the former decision or the latter, the short-sighted flip flop is a stain on the judicial branch that highlights the need for nationwide action to protect our democracy. Neither our courts, nor our politicians, can be relied upon to do this. It is time for voters to take the reins of our democracy.
Three important steps top the to-do list. First: establish fair redistricting processes – as has already been done in several states. Second: eliminate partisan judicial elections, which are leading to increased politicization of that branch (I am not naïve enough to think the alternatives are non-partisan, but they are less partisan and help preserve the integrity of our judicial branch). And finally, preserve the people’s check on our institutions by pushing for more states to allow ballot initiatives and referendum.
Gerrymandering is as disgusting as it is dangerous — and is opposed by a two-thirds majority of Americans, according to a 2021 AP-NORC poll. It’s also a bipartisan plague. One need look no further than New York or Maryland to find examples of efforts from the left, and Georgia and Ohio from the right.
Taking a long view, it’s not difficult to see how this gamesmanship ultimately threatens our two-party-system. If the parties continue to put their own interests ahead of voters’, it will only accelerate the trend of citizens who chose not to affiliate.
But in the near term, we must confront the brazen partisanship demonstrated by the Supreme Court in North Carolina. They’ve opted for politics over legal precedent. They’ve put their support for one-party rule over the rule of law.
North Carolina is among the handful of states where supreme court justices are elected in partisan elections (they were reinstated by Republicans in 2017 after nearly 20 years of nonpartisan contests). As the New York Times recently noted— and a most recently evidenced in Wisconsin — those states “have seen races for their high court seats turned into multimillion-dollar political battles, and their justices’ rulings viewed through a deeply partisan lens.”
By almost any measure, North Carolina is a purple state. The electorate is almost evenly divided between independents (36%), Democrats (34%), and Republicans (30%). In 2020, Donald Trump won 49.9% of the North Carolina vote and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper was re-elected with 51.5%.
In 2022, when Democrats held an advantage on the Supreme Court, justices ruled that the state’s legislative and congressional maps were gerrymandered by the Republican-controlled State Legislature (those maps for state House, Senate and Congress all received “Fs” from the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which uses a set of mathematical measures of fairness to grade redistricting maps). The Legislature’s proposed congressional map would have given the GOP an edge in at least 10 of 14 districts. Instead, a three-judge panel drew a congressional map that resulted in each party winning 7 seats in Congress.
But gerrymandered maps are on their way back.
In their recent ruling, the North Carolina justices pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2019 ruling that held gerrymandering is a political question and not one for the courts. Given that the governor cannot veto maps in North Carolina, that means there are now no limits on the partisan Legislature’s ability to gerrymander.
In each of the last two legislative sessions, measures that would have asked voters to approve independent redistricting commissions languished in a committee controlled by the party in power. Making matters worse, North Carolina also does not allow for citizen initiatives to pass new laws or referendums to repeal or approve of laws passed by the Legislature; which is how many of the states that are leading the way on attacking gerrymandering — California, Colorado, Michigan and Virginia — reformed the system.
The cancer of gerrymandering has metastasized to the point of pervasive and dire consequences. But the people can take power back, as has been demonstrated by recent efforts to establish independent redistricting commissions in many states.
It seems unlikely that Congress will take up the charge on reforms — so it may be that state-led efforts, which build coalitions who understand the intricacies of what former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously dubbed as our “laboratories of democracy,” are better suited for the task.
With that in mind, it is time for defenders of democracy — regardless of political affiliation — to declare their support for sensible efforts to end gerrymandering now. Failure — or unwillingness — to do so only hastens the fundamental loss of the founders’ explicit and fervent emphasis on checks and balances and creates an opening for those who are in power to draw up the bridge of democracy by changing the rules to preserve their power at others’ peril.