A panel of federal judges formally backed off Tuesday on the idea of requiring a new congressional map for North Carolina's fall elections, one week after broaching the possibility when the judges declared the current lines illegal partisan gerrymanders.
While declaring 12 of North Carolina's 13 districts violated the U.S. Constitution, the three judges had suggested ordering the Republican-dominated legislature or an outside expert to redraw the entire map, possibly by mid-September. They envisioned holding primaries for redrawn seats on Election Day, or perhaps having no primaries this year at all.
The panel shelved those ideas after hearing from the parties in the lawsuit late last week.
"We conclude that there is insufficient time for this court to approve a new districting plan and for the state to conduct an election using that plan prior to the seating of the new Congress in January 2019,'' the judges wrote in Tuesday's order.
In particular, the election advocacy groups, the state Democratic Party and Democratic voters who were victorious in their lawsuits wrote that regretfully they opposed a quick fix for the fall because it would be "too disruptive and potentially counterproductive.''
Any new map also would have required weeks of preparation by state election officials to carry out. The state elections board also told the court there was essentially only one doable option — holding a stand-alone congressional election a week before Christmas.
New boundaries may have helped Democrats be competitive in more seats on a map that Republicans approved in 2016 with a goal of preserving 10 of the seats for the GOP. Democrats nationally need to flip about two dozen Republican seats in November to take control of the House again.
But the plaintiffs wrote last Friday that a rush to alter the map and hold an election on an unusual date could make it harder for Democrats to pick up seats in North Carolina in part by depressing voter turnout among young people and minorities.
"Because these populations tend to support the Democratic Party, it is entirely possible that this proposal would actually hurt, rather than help, the electoral prospects of the Democratic Party — exactly what the legislative defendants sought to do through the unconstitutional 2016 plan,'' they wrote.
It wasn't surprising that attorneys for the Republican lawmakers who were sued fought any new map this fall. They say partisan gerrymandering claims are groundless and have never been affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court. They had asked the judges to delay the enforcement of last week's ruling and filed a notice of appeal to the Supreme Court.
Attorneys for some of the plaintiffs wrote earlier Tuesday that they would be willing to accept a delay as long as a schedule is in place to make it likely for the Supreme Court to hear the cause during the upcoming term if the justices chose to do so. That would mean a ruling by next June that affirms the lower-court decision would leave time for a redraw well before the 2020 elections, the attorneys wrote.
In Tuesday's order, the three judges also asked for more responses to the GOP lawmakers' delay request by late Wednesday.
The same three-judge panel declared unconstitutional the state's congressional map last January, but the Supreme Court returned the case to the judges in June to review in light of a Wisconsin case.