By Samuel Gilleran

In a sweeping, 357-page ruling released yesterday afternoon, a three-judge panel of North Carolina Superior Court judges unanimously held that partisan gerrymandering violates multiple provisions of the North Carolina Constitution,[1] including the Equal Protection Clause,[2] the Free Elections Clause,[3] and the Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Assembly Clauses.[4]

The panel then proceeded to enjoin the use of the maps in the 2020 primary and general elections, ordered the General Assembly to enact new maps within two weeks, and forbade the use of “[p]artisan considerations and election results data.”[5] The panel further decreed that the General Assembly could not use the current map “as a starting point for drawing new districts, and no effort may be made to preserve the cores of invalidated 2017 districts.”[6] The panel forbade the use of outside consultants without Court approval and demanded that “the entire remedial process” must occur “in full public view. At a minimum, this requires all map drawing to occur at public hearings, with any relevant computer screen visible to legislators and public observers.”[7] Finally, the panel “retain[ed] jurisdiction” to adjust the dates of the 2020 primary elections in the event that such an adjustment was “necessary to provide effective relief in this case.”[8]

The panel noted that the allegations of partisan gerrymandering were essentially uncontested.[9] After all, in the related redrawing of the congressional district lines, Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett), a leader in the Republican redistricting effort, plainly stated his belief that a “political gerrymander [was] not against the law” in urging the adoption of a map that would “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.”[10] The real question at issue was whether such gerrymandering was both proscribed under the North Carolina Constitution and justiciable by the North Carolina courts. The panel answered both questions affirmatively.

Before the panel expounded its holdings under the state constitution, it first explained why the Supreme Court’s opinion in Rucho v. Common Cause[11] did not control. As the panel noted, the Supreme Court explicitly reserved the issue of partisan gerrymandering for state review. It quoted the high court’s assertion that its opinion in Rucho did “not condone excessive partisan gerrymandering” and did not “condemn complaints about districting to echo into a void.”[12] “Rather, the Supreme Court held, ‘[t]he States . . . are actively addressing the issue on a number of fronts,’ and ‘[p]rovisions in state statutes and state constitutions can provide standards and guidance for state courts to apply.’”[13] The panel held that such provisions were present in North Carolina’s constitution.

First, the panel examined the Free Elections Clause. It noted that this clause “is one of the clauses that makes the North Carolina Constitution more detailed and specific than the federal Constitution in the protection of the rights of its citizens.”[14] The panel traced the evolution of the Free Elections Clause throughout the history of North Carolina’s legal system and concluded that it provides a justiciable right to North Carolinians; it is not merely hortatory or aspirational language.[15] It specifically pointed to a 1971 revision of the state constitution in which the wording of the clause was changed from “all elections ought to be free” to “all elections shall be free.”[16] “This change was intended to ‘make [it] clear’ that the Free Elections Clause and the other rights secured to the people by the Declaration of Rights ‘are commands and not mere admonitions’ to proper conduct on the part of the government.”[17]

The panel went on to hold that “[t]he partisan gerrymandering of the 2017 Plans strikes at the heart of the Free Elections Clause. . . . Elections are not free when partisan actors have tainted future elections by specifically and systematically designing the contours of the election districts for partisan purposes and a desire to preserve power. In doing so, partisan actors ensure from the outset that it is nearly impossible for the will of the people—should that will be contrary to the will of the partisan actors drawing the maps—to be expressed through their votes for State legislators.”[18]

In holding that North Carolina’s Free Elections Clause proscribed partisan gerrymandering, the panel’s logic tracked that of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which in 2018 held that a similar clause in that state’s constitution forbade partisan gerrymandering.[19] In that case, the court overturned a Republican gerrymander of Pennsylvania’s congressional districts; in the ensuing election, Democrats flipped three seats and came within 11,239 votes in three more.[20] Were it not for Pennsylvania’s political geography, in which there are 260,000 excess Democratic votes in the 3rd Congressional District (Philadelphia), Democrats could have won even more seats.[21]

Second, the panel examined North Carolina’s Equal Protection Clause.[22] The panel noted that the state version of the clause has been interpreted more broadly than the federal courts have interpreted the federal clause.[23] And so the panel relied on previous state supreme court precedents to explicate that North Carolina’s Democratic voters were being treated unequally and that because the fundamental right to vote was implicated, strict scrutiny applied.[24]

Third, the panel turned to the Free Speech and Free Assembly claims. The panel held that “the 2017 Plans discriminate[d] against . . .  Democratic voters based on their protected expression and association” and that “[d]iscriminating against citizens based on their political beliefs does not serve any legitimate government interest.”[25] The panel also held that the 2017 plans were unconstitutional under a retaliation theory of the Free Speech and Free Assembly Clauses; because Democratic voters had past protected political activity (i.e., voting for Democratic candidates) and because Republican mapmakers had chosen Democrats for negative treatment based on their protected activity, a retaliation claim was successful.[26]

Finally, the panel had to decide whether the claims were justiciable. After all, the Supreme Court had essentially held just a few months prior that while partisan gerrymandering was bad behavior, it was powerless to stop it due to a lack of judicially manageable standards. The panel held that the question of partisan gerrymandering did not fall within the political question doctrine; it is justiciable.[27] The panel specifically noted that one of the main purposes of the judicial branch of government was to be a check on the legislature’s desire to aggrandize power to itself. Citing a case from 1787, dating all the way back to the founding of the Republic, the panel declared:

“If unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering is not checked and balanced by judicial oversight, legislators elected under one partisan gerrymander will enact new gerrymanders after each decennial census, entrenching themselves in power anew decade after decade. When the North Carolina Supreme Court first recognized the power to declare state statutes unconstitutional, it presciently noted that absent judicial review, members of the General Assembly could ‘render themselves the Legislators of the State for life, without any further election of the people.’ Those legislators could even ‘from thence transmit the dignity and authority of legislation down to their heirs male forever.’ Extreme partisan gerrymandering reflects just such an effort by a legislative majority to permanently entrench themselves in power in perpetuity.”[28]

Notably, the panel rejected the argument that because gerrymandering had a long history, it was therefore constitutional. Citing to the seminal voting rights case Reynolds v. Sims, the panel stated that “widespread historical practices does not immunize governmental action from constitutional scrutiny.”[29] Merely because a practice was longstanding – and even, as in this case, engaged in by one of the Plaintiffs (i.e., the North Carolina Democratic Party) during the many years when it was in power – does not somehow eliminate the rights reserved by North Carolinians under the state constitution. The panel also rejected the idea that it needed to find a bright-line rule for how much partisan gerrymandering was too much, the question that so plagued the Supreme Court in Rucho. Instead, the panel stated the obvious: “[t]his case is not close.”[30] In essence, the panel held that, wherever the line is, this set of facts is so far past that line that Plaintiffs’ entitlement to relief is indisputable.

The reaction to the panel’s decision was swift. Sen. Jeff Jackson (D-Mecklenburg) tweeted that the ruling was “the single best news [he] ha[d] ever heard” during his time in the legislature,[31] while Rep. Graig Meyer (D-Orange) called the ruling “a big win for democracy and a game changer for 2020.”[32] But the biggest news came from Republican Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham), who announced that Republicans would not appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court. Although castigating the panel’s decision, Sen. Berger stated that “[n]early a decade of relentless litigation has strained the legitimacy of this state’s institutions, and the relationship between its leaders, to the breaking point. It’s time to move on. To end this matter once and for all, we will follow the court’s instruction and move forward with adoption of a nonpartisan map.”[33] Election law scholar Rick Hasen suggested a few reasons why Republicans elected not to appeal, including the simple facts of sure loss in the North Carolina Supreme Court and the greater precedential value of the inevitable negative decision from that court.[34]

What are the practical ramifications of this decision? For the first time in a long time, Democrats truly believe they can win back majorities in each house of the legislature.[35] Republicans currently maintain a 65-55 margin in the state house, and given the sheer number of districts identified in the decision as unconstitutionally gerrymandered, Democrats have to feel good about the prospects of taking back at least that chamber. Democrats carried a majority of the two-party vote in 2018,[36] and it is historically likely that the electorate in 2020, a presidential year, will be younger and more racially diverse than in 2018, a midterm year.[37]

Judging from the simulations run by political scientists and adjusting for a 2020 political environment, Democrats have a strong chance at flipping House seats in Columbus County,[38] Cumberland County,[39] Franklin County,[40] Pitt County,[41] Guilford County,[42] Forsyth County (possibly two)[43], New Hanover County,[44] Onslow County,[45] Anson County,[46] and Alamance County.[47] If Democrats were able to flip even six of these eleven targets, it would give them a 61-59 majority in the state house, all other things being equal.

Similarly, on the Senate side, Republicans retain a 29-21 majority, so the Democrats would have to flip five seats. The panel’s ruling gives Democrats a reasonable chance at flipping seats in Mecklenburg County[48] and Wake County,[49] but in other gerrymandered districts that would be unwound by the ruling, such as in Guilford County and New Hanover County, Democrats managed to defeat the gerrymander in 2018. That said, unwinding the gerrymander makes the playing field different and, in a good year, could allow Democrats to take Senate seats that they ordinarily would not. In addition, when decennial redistricting occurs in 2021 after the 2020 census, it could be that a few seats will shift from rural to suburban and urban areas, thereby helping Democratic chances moving forward.

[1] Common Cause v. Lewis, No. 18-cv-14001, slip op. at 352–53 (N.C. Super. Ct. [Wake] Sep. 3, 2019),

[2] N.C. Const. art. I, § 19.

[3] N.C. Const. art. I, § 10.

[4] N.C. Const. art. I, §§ 12, 14.

[5] Common Cause, slip op. at 353–55.

[6] Id. at 355.

[7] Id. at 356.

[8] Id. at 357.

[9] Id. at 23.

[10] 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),

[11] 139 S. Ct. 2484 (2019) (holding partisan gerrymandering non-justiciable under the federal Constitution).

[12] Common Cause, slip op. at 299 (quoting Rucho, 139 S. Ct. at 2507).

[13] Id. (emphasis added in Common Cause).

[14] Id.

[15] Id. at 303–04.

[16] Id. at 304 (emphasis added in Common Cause) (quoting N.C. Const.  art I, § 10) (comparing 1868 version to 1971 version).

[17] Id. (quoting N.C. State Bar v. DuMont, 304 N.C. 627, 635, 639, 286 S.E.2d 89, 94, 97 (1982)).

[18] Id. at 305.

[19] See League of Women Voters of Pa. v. Commonwealth, 178 A.3d 737, 804 (Pa. 2018).

[20] Pennsylvania Election Results, N.Y. Times (last updated Dec. 19, 2018, 5:12 PM),

[21] Id.

[22] Common Cause, slip op. at 307.

[23] Id. at 308–09.

[24] Id. at 315–16.

[25] Id. at 328.

[26] Id. at 329–31.

[27] Id. at 334.

[28] Id. at 333 (quoting Bayard v. Singleton, 1 N.C. 5, 7 (1787)).

[29] Id. (citing Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533, 582 (1964) (invalidating Alabama’s malapportioned legislative districts despite a history of malapportionment that dated back to the founding). North Carolina itself engaged in such malapportionment, which has been documented as early as 1792. See Thomas Rogers Hunter, The First Gerrymander?: Patrick Henry, James Madison, James Monroe, and Virginia’s 1788 Congressional Districting, 9 Early Am. Stud. 781, 819 (2011) (discussing a 1792 map that “severely overpopulated” congressional districts in the northeast corner of the state).

[30] Common Cause, slip op. at 341.

[31] Jeff Jackson (@JeffJacksonNC), Twitter (Sep. 3, 2019, 4:40 PM),

[32] Graig Meyer (@GraigMeyer), Twitter (Sep. 3, 2019, 4:44 PM),

[33] Nick Ochsner (@NickOchsnerWBTV), Twitter (Sep. 3, 2019, 5:27 PM),

[34] See Rick Hasen, North Carolina Republicans Won’t Appeal Gerrymandering Ruling, Promise “Nonpartisan” Map. What’s the End Game?, Election L. Blog (Sep. 3, 2019, 3:13 PM),

[35] See Jeff Jackson (@JeffJacksonNC), Twitter (Sep. 3, 2019, 7:03 PM), (“With fair maps, we have a genuine shot at electing a state legislature that actually reflects the political will of our state.”).

[36] Common Cause, slip op. at 233.

[37] See, e.g., Matthew Yglesias, The 2018 Electorate Was Older, Whiter, and Better Educated Than in 2016, Vox (Nov. 12, 2018, 10:00 AM),

[38] Common Cause, slip op. at 153.

[39] Id. at 157–58.

[40] Id. at 161–64.

[41] Id. at 164–69.

[42] Id. at 170–75.

[43] Id. at 181–85.

[44] Id. at 194–99.

[45] Id. at 199–203.

[46] Id. at 203–08.

[47] Id. at 209–15.

[48] Id. at 109–17.

[49] Id. at 117–23.

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.