By Matt Deorocki

As the 2020 census and election cycle draws ever closer, some North Carolinians are looking to the state’s court system to provide guidance on the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering in Common Cause v. Lewis. Since filing its original complaint on November 13, 2018, Common Cause, a non-profit, “nonpartisan democracy organization with over 1.2 million members and local organizers in 35 states” has sought a ruling striking down partisan gerrymandering within North Carolina’s state legislative districts.[1] While North Carolina has a rather illustrious history regarding gerrymandering, the state’s most recent controversies spur from what Common Cause defines as ill-intended Republican efforts in 2010 and 2017 to solidify power through partisan redistricting.[2]

Common Cause asserts that national Republican leaders targeted North Carolina in a concerted effort with the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) to redraw North Carolina’s state congressional districts to ensure greater Republican representation.[3] Using a plan codenamed “REDMAP,” Common Cause claims that four Republican operatives, including the famed Republican strategist Thomas Hofeller, set forth redistricting maps in 2011 that were completely devoid of any committee or subcommittee influence from either branch of the state legislature[4] After passing party-line votes in the House and Senate, subsequent litigation was brought, ultimately leading to Republican leaders in the General Assembly admitting that “[p]olitical considerations played a significant role in the enacted plans and all alternatives.”[5]

Further challenges on Republican-drawn districts came into light in 2017. Ultimately, anti-gerrymandering enthusiasts emerged with a short-lived victory in Covington v. North Carolina, a case in which 19 House districts and 9 Senate districts were found to be in violation of the federal Equal Protection Clause due to racially motivated redistricting schemes. Nevertheless, victory was short-lived, as Republicans, including Hofeller, found themselves at the helm of remedial redistricting.[6] With racial gerrymandering violations fresh in the redistricting strategists’ minds, Hofeller and the redistricting committee set forth a 2017 plan seeking to maximize Republican partisan advantage.[7] In fact, Republican leaders in the General Assembly plainly admitted they were seeking to maximize Republican advantage. In relation to the similarly gerrymandered congressional map, one leader stated that he wanted to “give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and 3 Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and 2 Democrats.”[8]

Accordingly, the main question in Common Cause v. Lewis is not whether North Carolina Republicans engaged in partisan gerrymandering, but whether partisan gerrymanders violate North Carolina’s Constitution. Given the United States Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Rucho v. Common Cause, a case regarding partisan gerrymandering in federal congressional districts, Common Cause is likely facing an uphill battle in Superior Court, North Carolina’s trial court.[9] In Rucho, the Supreme Court defined the scope of judicial action in partisan gerrymandering controversies, ultimately holding that “[P]artisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts. Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions.”[10] Despite indicating that “such gerrymandering is ‘incompatible with democratic principles,’” Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the 5-4 majority, gave the resounding answer: it’s not our job.[11]

Given this significant precedent, a key question remains: why is Common Cause getting a second chance? In reality, the United States Supreme Court’s overall ruling is binding on all courts interpreting the United States Constitution. In addition, The Supreme Court’s holding on justiciability likely binds any federal court interpreting a state constitution via supplemental jurisdiction. However, a North Carolina court may interpret North Carolina’s Constitution to provide greater rights than are seen in the United States Constitution because its holding would be based solely on state constitutional protections. Thus, because the North Carolina Superior Court has adequate and independent grounds under the North Carolina Constitution to evaluate partisan gerrymandering, Common Cause is free to launch its attack once again under the state constitution. Nevertheless, in order to overcome the significant persuasive authority set forth by the Supreme Court, Common Cause has honed in on three specific counts, each drawing light to “increased” protections held within North Carolina’s Constitution.[12]

Common Cause launched its attack by arguing that partisan gerrymandering violates North Carolina’s Equal Protection clause.[13] The basis of the argument relies on the clause, “[n]o person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws,” extending protection beyond that of the Federal Constitution.[14] While the clause has been interpreted to protect the right of “substantially equal voting power,” it is unclear whether the clause has applicability to partisan concerns.[15] Accordingly, Common Cause reasoned that the argument fits because Republicans purposefully diluted the voting power of Democrats, thereby making it “more difficult for Democratic candidates to be elected across the state, and . . . rendering it virtually impossible for the Democratic Party to achieve a majority of either chamber of the General Assembly.”[16] However, Common Cause’s argument should face significant skepticism, as Democrats are not a suspect class and are not entitled to increased judicial protections.

In their Post-Trial Brief filed August 7, 2019, Defendants in Common Cause v. Lewis addressed these accusations by reasoning that by delegating district map drawing to a political branch, the branch naturally could “consider partisan advantage and incumbency protection in the application of its discretionary redistricting decision.”[17] Furthermore, defendants returned an ill-willed jab stating: “Plaintiffs do not belong to a suspect class. Nor do they suffer an injury to ‘a constitutionally protected right to vote, and to have their votes counted.’ Instead, they complain of the political impact of district lines that will, in all events, have political consequences.”[18]

Given the Supreme Court’s refusal to act on equal protection grounds in Rucho, it would seem unlikely that a North Carolina Superior Court would take the opposite stand. Yet the three-judge panel appointed to hear the case is made up of two Democrats and one Republican, perhaps better odds than the 5-4 Supreme Court split.[19]

Common Cause also attacks Republican redistricting by claiming its partisan considerations violate the Free Elections Clause of the North Carolina Constitution, which provides “All elections shall be free.”[20] Despite this rather ambiguous language, Common Cause has supported its contention by arguing that on February 7, 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that a partisan gerrymander of Pennsylvania congressional districts violated Art. I, Sec. 5 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which provides for elections that are “free and equal.”[21] The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ultimately ruled that Pennsylvania’s Free and Equal Elections Clause requires voters to “have an equal opportunity to translate their votes into representation” and that said requirement is ultimately violated by “extraneous considerations such as gerrymandering for unfair partisan political advantage.”[22] As is easily done when arguing over semantics, the defense answered the attack by pointing to the notion that the Pennsylvania Constitution requires “free and equal” elections while the North Carolina Constitution merely indicates that elections must be “free.”[23] Accordingly, the defense articulates that there simply is nothing violating the North Carolina clause, as there is nothing impeding voting and each vote is being counted.

Finally, Common Cause argues that the Defendants have violated North Carolina’s Freedom of Assembly and Free Speech Clauses “by intentionally burdening the protected speech and/or expressive conduct of Plaintiffs and other Democratic voters, including members of Common Cause and the NCDP based on their identity, their viewpoints, and the content of their speech.”[24] However, the Defendants responded by stating that Plaintiffs’ viewpoints are not being restricted in any manner and there is no prohibition on speaking or associating with one another.[25] Here, it is likely that Common Cause has taken a more abstract view of speech and association by arguing that Republican redistricting techniques have deprived them of being able to assert the political philosophies in an adequate manner. Today, it remains uncertain whether such an argument can stand.

Given the Supreme Court’s ruling in Rucho v. Common Cause and North Carolina Constitution’s limited variance from the federal Constitution, I believe that a ruling in Common Cause’s favor is highly unlikely, despite the partisan makeup of the panel (two Democrats and one Republican). The persuasive authority of the United States Supreme Court may be a significant deterrent for any judge thinking about ruling in Common Cause’s favor. With the Supreme Court already ruling on a similar, albeit different constitution, North Carolina’s Superior Court could readily defer their opinion to the language expressed in Rucho, limiting their political liability. Either way, the Superior Court’s ruling will be short-lived, as the loser will surely appeal the case to the North Carolina Supreme Court in the immediate aftermath.

[1] Amended Complaint at 3, Common Cause v. Lewis, No. 18-cv-14001 (N.C. Super. Ct. [Wake] filed Dec. 7, 2018) [hereinafter Amended Complaint]

[2] Id. at 17

[3] Id.

[4] Id. at 19.

[5] Defendants-Appellees’ Brief on Remand at *16, Dickson v. Rucho, 781 S.E.2d 404 (N.C. 2015) (No. 201PA12-3), 2015 WL 4456364.

[6] Covington v. North Carolina, 316 F.R.D. 117 (M.D.N.C. 2016), aff’d, 137 S. Ct. 2211 (2017)

[7] Amended Complaint, supra note 1, at 28, (citing Covington, ECF No. 187-3 at 2)

[8] Hearing Before the J. Comm. on Redistricting, Extra Sess. 48, 50 (N.C. Feb. 16, 2016) (statement of Rep. David Lewis, Co-Chair, J. Comm. on Redistricting),

[9] See Rucho v. Common Cause, No. 18-422 slip op. at 30 (U.S. June 27, 2019)

[10] Id.

[11] Id. (citing Arizona State Legislature, 576 U.S. at ____ (slip op., at 1)).

[12] Amended Complaint, supra note 1, at 67–74.

[13] Id. at 67.

[14] N.C. Const. art. I, § 19.

[15] Stephenson v. Bartlett, 562 S.E.2d 377, 394 (N.C. 2002)

[16] Amended Complaint, supra note 1, at 68.

[17] Defendant’s Post-Trial Brief at 4, Common Cause v. Lewis, No. 18-cv-14001 (N.C. Super. Ct. [Wake] (Aug. 7, 2019) [hereinafter Defendant’s Post-Trial Brief] (citing Stephenson v. Bartlett, 562 S.E.2d at 390 (N.C. 2002)).

[18] Id. at 7 (citing Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. at 554–55 (1964)).

[19] Order, Common Cause v. Lewis, No. 18-cv-14001 (N.C. Super. Ct. [Wake] (Nov. 27, 2018); Kari Travis, In Common Cause v. Lewis, Courts Will Again Take on Partisan Gerrymandering. Carolina J. (July 15, 2019),

[20] N.C. Const. art I, § 10.

[21] Pa. Const. art I, § 5; League of Women Voters v. Commonwealth, 178 A.3d 737, 804 (Pa. 2018).

[22] League of Women Voters, 178 A.3d at 814, 817.

[23] Defendant’s Post-Trial Brief, supra note 16 at 19 (citing Pa. Const. art I, § 5; N.C. Const. art I, § 10).

[24] Amended Complaint, supra note 1, at 72.

[25] Defendant’s Post-Trial Brief, supra note 16 at 19.