By Joseph Ax
(Reuters) – Democrats and Republicans poured millions of dollars into state Supreme Court races in North Carolina and Ohio last fall, eyeing the seats as a crucial tool in advancing political power on issues such as redistricting, abortion and voting laws.
On Friday, Republicans reaped the first major reward, when the newly elected conservative majority on North Carolina’s top court agreed to revisit an earlier decision invalidating a Republican-backed redistricting map.
The move is a likely precursor to a ruling that gives the state’s Republican-controlled legislature the power to redraw the map to their advantage, legal and political experts say.
If Republicans are allowed to implement more partisan congressional lines, the result would flip three or perhaps even four Democratic seats just in North Carolina, enough to nearly double Republicans’ current narrow margin in the U.S. House of Representatives in next year’s elections.
The state’s 14 districts are currently split evenly between the parties, after the November 2022 election took place using a more competitive map drawn by judges.
“We’re probably at a point where 11 Republican seats can be drawn,” said Michael Bitzer, a politics and history professor at Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina, and the author of “Redistricting and Gerrymandering in North Carolina: Battlelines in the Tar Heel State.”
The court’s Republicans also agreed to rehear a case in which its previous Democratic majority had blocked a law requiring a photo identification to vote.
Ohio’s state Supreme Court issued more than a half-dozen 4-3 rulings last year tossing out Republican-favored maps on the grounds that they violated a constitutional provision prohibiting redistricting from favoring one party over another.
But after the retirement of the court’s chief justice, Maureen O’Connor, the swing vote for those decisions, and the election of Republicans for both open seats, most observers believe the court’s new majority is far less likely to stand in the way when the Republican-controlled redistricting commission redraws maps later this year.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they just went through the kabuki theater, and we actually end up with exactly the same maps,” Catherine Turcer, the executive director of Common Cause Ohio, which campaigns against partisan redistricting, said of the commission.
In North Carolina, Republican candidates in November won two seats held by Democrats, wresting away the majority. Friday’s decision by the five conservatives earned a scathing rebuke from the two remaining Democratic justices.
“It took this court just one month to send a smoke signal to the public that our decisions are fleeting, and our precedent is only as enduring as the terms of the justices who sit on the bench,” they wrote.
The court’s decision to rehear the issue, rather than wait for lawmakers to draw new maps that would then be subject to litigation, creates the appearance that the justices were acting out of “raw partisanship,” said Asher Hildebrand, a public policy professor at Duke University.
“To me, it removes all pretense that this was about fair-minded judicial review,” he said.
The office of the Republican state Senate leader, Phil Berger, did not respond to a request for comment on the ruling on Monday.
Last year’s Democratic majority on the court ruled that the state constitution outlawed gerrymandering, the process by which one party manipulates redistricting to entrench power. That decision led North Carolina Republican lawmakers to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in what has become one of the year’s most momentous cases.
In Moore v. Harper, the Republican legislators have asked the nation’s high court to embrace a once-fringe legal theory that would bar judges from exercising any oversight over lawmakers’ power to draw maps and institute election rules. Democrats and civil rights advocates have argued that the principle, known as the independent state legislature theory, would permit anti-democratic laws.
The North Carolina Supreme Court – whose previous decision gave rise to the U.S. Supreme Court case – could now choose to embrace the notion regardless of what the U.S. Supreme Court eventually rules.
“We either get Moore v. Harper and it’s the Wild West everywhere, or we get a Republican state Supreme Court to overturn it and it’s just the Wild West in North Carolina,” Hildebrand said.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Aurora Ellis)