By Lisa Soronen
If you thought the U.S. Supreme Court’s redistricting docket was complete for this term, you were surprised on Monday morning.
In North Carolina v. Covington, the Supreme Court issued a three-page unauthored opinion ordering a North Carolina district court to reconsider its decision to remedy unconstitutional racial gerrymandering by truncating existing legislators’ terms and holding a special election.
(This ruling was separate from another case in which the court struck down many North Carolina state legislative districts for relying too heavily on race.)
In August 2016, a court in the Middle District of North Carolina ruled race was unconstitutionally used as the predominant factor in the design of 28 majority-black state legislative districts created following the 2010 census.
The court did not order the districts redrawn before the 2016 election. But three weeks after the election it issued an additional order that, among other things, limited to one year the term of any legislator elected in 2016 in a district modified by the forthcoming redistricting and required a special election in the fall of 2017 to select new legislators in the affected districts for one-year terms.
The Supreme Court vacated and remanded the district court’s order because it “failed to meaningfully weigh any equitable considerations.” Relief in redistricting cases must be based on an “equitable weighing process,” and the Supreme Court found that the district court “addressed the balance of equities in only the most cursory fashion.”
The Supreme Court directed the district court to reconsider its order in light of “the severity and nature of the particular constitutional violation, the extent of the likely disruption to the ordinary processes of governance if early elections are imposed, and the need to act with proper judicial restraint when intruding on state sovereignty.”
Lisa Soronen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and a frequent contributor to the NCSL Blog on judicial issues.