June 05, 2017

Supreme Court Decides North Carolina v. Covington

On June 5, 2017, the Supreme Court decided North Carolina v. Covington, No. 16-1023, vacating the remedial relief order that the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina entered in late 2016 after striking down the North Carolina General Assembly’s 2011 redistricting plan as unconstitutional and holding that, in fashioning relief in a redistricting action, a district court must exercise its discretion to weigh the equities and grant relief that is necessary, fair, and workable in light of the legal violations the court has identified and the individual and collective interests that are at stake.

North Carolina’s General Assembly redistricted the state in 2011 based on the results of the 2010 national census. In 2015, a group of North Carolina voters challenged 28 districts within that 2011 plan as unconstitutionally drawn on the basis of race. In August 2016, the district court held for the plaintiff voters, but it did not order any relief that would have interfered with the November 2016 election; instead, it ordered the North Carolina General Assembly to redraw the districts before any future election for that body. 

Then, after the November 2016 election, the court further ordered that (a) the General Assembly had to complete its redrawing of the districts by March 2017; (b) the term of any state legislator who was elected in a district that was later modified in the remedial plan would be limited to one year; (c) when those legislators were replaced in a fall 2017 special election, the terms of those replacement legislators would also be limited to one year; and (d) the North Carolina Constitution’s requirement that a state legislator reside within a district for one year before he or she may be elected to represent it would be suspended to the extent the requirement interferes with the other aspects of the court’s order.

The State of North Carolina appealed the district court’s order and requested that the Supreme Court vacate it. The Supreme Court granted a stay and then vacated the order.

The Court instructed that in redistricting cases, a district court must fashion relief using an “equitable weighing process” that accounts for what is “necessary,” “fair,” and “workable” in light of the legal violations identified and the “individual and collective interests” that are at stake. Observing that it “has never addressed whether or when a special election may be a proper remedy for a racial gerrymander,” the Court noted that in styling such relief, “obvious considerations include[, among other things,] the severity and nature of the particular constitutional violation, the extent of the likely disruption to the ordinary processes of governance if early elections are imposed, and the need to act with proper judicial restraint when intruding on state sovereignty.” 

Rather than pass substantively on the relief that the district court ordered, the Court held only that in crafting its remedial relief, the district court failed to sufficiently exercise its discretion to balance the equities. It vacated and remanded the district court’s order for further proceedings consistent with the Court’s opinion.

The Court issued the opinion per curiam.

Download Opinion of the Court

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