WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday let stand a lower court’s ruling that North Carolina Republicans mapped state legislative districts in a way that diluted the clout of black voters but threw out a separate decision telling the state to redraw them.
The high court, with no recorded dissents, sent the case back to a three-judge federal district court panel that in November had ordered North Carolina to conduct a new round of elections this year for the 28 legislative seats at issue.
The Supreme Court in January put that ruling on hold while it decided whether to hear the state’s appeal.
The justices left in place an August 2016 ruling by the same court that said the districts were racial “gerrymanders,” with boundaries drawn to diminish the voting power of minorities, and violated the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. The lower court found that the Republican-led state legislature had crammed black voters into a limited number of districts in order to lessen their statewide electoral power.
At issue were nine state Senate districts and 19 state House districts, as carved out in a plan adopted by the Republican-controlled legislature in 2011.
“Whether the election is November 2018 or earlier, redrawing the districts is good for our democracy by leveling the playing field for free and fair elections,” North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, said in a statement.
“The people should be able to choose their representatives in competitive districts instead of the representatives being able to choose the people in lopsided, partisan districts,” Cooper added.
Packing minorities into a limited number of legislative districts would reduce their influence in electing a larger number of lawmakers, increasing the sway of white voters.
The court’s action on Monday marks its latest foray into a North Carolina voting rights case.
The justices on May 22 ruled that North Carolina Republicans unlawfully took race into consideration when drawing two majority-black U.S. House of Representatives districts, concentrating black voters in an improper bid to hold down their statewide influence.
On May 15, the justices rebuffed a Republican bid to revive a strict North Carolina voter-identification law that a lower court found deliberately discriminated against black voters.
Democrats have accused Republicans of taking a variety of steps at the state level to disenfranchise black and other minority voters who tend to back Democratic candidates. Republicans have defended their actions, saying some are meant to prevent voter fraud.
The North Carolina plaintiffs sued in 2015, saying legislative district lines were drawn so as to diminish the state’s black voting power and give Republicans an advantage.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)