On Friday, conservative North Carolina Chief Justice Mark Martin announced that he will be stepping down next month to become the dean of the Regent University law school. This means that Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper will be able to appoint a replacement — and the result could be far-reaching not just for fair elections in North Carolina, but for congressional redistricting for the next decade.
The North Carolina Supreme Court has undergone a rapid and seismic ideological shift. In 2016, the court consisted of four conservative and three liberal justices. But that year, liberal challenger Mike Morgan defeated Justice Bob Edmunds, shifting the majority to liberals. The panicked GOP legislature responded with a flurry of laws to try to protect incumbent conservative Justice Barbara Jackson in 2018 — they made judicial races partisan and canceled the primary, trying to get multiple Democrats to run against the Republican and split the vote. That plan backfired spectacularly as multiple Republicansran on the ballot while Democrats coalesced around civil rights attorney Anita Earls, giving Democrats a 5-2 majority. Martin’s departure means Democrats will now have a 6-1 majority.
And that could spell doom for the Republicans’ gerrymandering scheme in North Carolina, which is one of the most egregious in the country — last year, Democrats won 51 percent of votes in state House races, but Republicans won 59 percent of seats because they drew the district lines to maximize Republican majorities.
At the federal level, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case in March to decide whether North Carolina’s 10-3 partisan Republican gerrymander of congressional seats is constitutional. The GOP blatantly drew this map to prevent Democrats from being represented, with state Rep. David Lewis saying, “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats.” But it is unclear that the court, stacked as it is with President Donald Trump’s right-wing appointees, is prepared to intervene.
But with the state Supreme Court firmly in Democratic hands, it might not matter what federal courts do. That’s because a lawsuit filed in state court last November, Common Cause v. Lewis, seeks to have the state House and Senate districts thrown out, much like the Pennsylvania Supreme Court did to that state’s congressional seats last year. If the state justices order new legislative maps ahead of the 2020 election, North Carolina’s congressional maps are likely to get a fair redraw anyway, as the legislators elected under redrawn 2020 maps would then themselves be responsible for drawing the congressional maps after the Census — potentially giving the state three to four more competitive congressional districts.
The GOP has dominated state legislative politics for most of the 2010s because their last wave election fell on a Census year, giving them control of the which voters go into which districts. But this time around, Democrats are fighting back — and with equality-minded judges on state benches, they are ready to level the playing field.