RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina Democrats could face better odds of winning more legislative seats and helping Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper thwart the GOP's conservative agenda because of U.S. Supreme Court actions Monday in a case about racial bias in election districts drawn by Republicans.
In a one-sentence order, the justices upheld a lower court ruling that struck down 28 state House and Senate districts because they were illegal racial gerrymanders that violated the rights of black voters.
But voters may have to wait nearly 18 more months for the ruling to yield results, since the justices separately rejected an order by the same three-judge panel to hold special elections this fall in districts that must be redrawn by lawmakers. They wrote that the three judges should have done a better job evaluating whether moving up the schedule was warranted.
The lower court, "addressed the balance of equities in only the most cursory fashion," the justices wrote in an unsigned opinion vacating the scheduling order. "We cannot have confidence that the court adequately grappled with the interests on both sides of the remedial question before us."
The three-judge panel, however, could still order new districts in time for the regular cycle of elections that would end in November 2018.
The high court's action follows last month's ruling in which the justices struck down two North Carolina congressional districts — the 1st in the east and the 12th in the Piedmont — because they also diminished the voting strength of the state's black residents. The legislature already redrew its congressional boundaries in February 2016 and used them in last November's election.
The legislative districts were initially drawn in 2011 when Republicans controlled the legislature, as they do now. Civil rights groups and black voters challenged the districts, complaining that they packed too many black voters into some districts and made surrounding districts whiter and thus more likely to elect Republicans.
The maps have helped Republicans expand and retain majorities they initially won in the 2010 elections, giving the GOP control of both chambers simultaneously for the first time in 140 years. Republicans have used the advantage to pass right-leaning legislation to cut taxes, restrict abortion and create taxpayer-funded scholarships for children to attend private schools.
The lower court judges unanimously declared that GOP legislators had failed to justify creating so many districts with black voting-age populations above 50 percent.
Democrats need to capture three House seats or six Senate seats currently held by Republicans to eliminate the GOP's veto-proof majorities and enhance Cooper's power. He has vetoed four bills since taking office in January, and legislators overrode all of those vetoes.
"Whether the election is November 2018 or earlier, redrawing the districts is good for our democracy by leveling the playing field for free and fair elections," Cooper said in a statement.
In previously ordering that the maps be redrawn quickly and elections be held in the fall, the lower court wrote that the costs of holding special elections "pale in comparison to the injury caused by allowing citizens" to remain represented by lawmakers in gerrymandered districts.
With the congressional district ruling just two weeks ago, GOP lawmakers already were anticipating the legislative maps would be struck down, too. But attorneys for the state and legislative leaders had complained that in requiring elections this fall, the three judges ignored state constitutional requirements for two-year General Assembly terms and candidates living in a district for at least one year.
Holding races earlier than November 2018 would "ignore voters' constitutional right to elect representatives to two-year terms, and effectively nullify their votes from 2016," Republican Rep. David Lewis and Sen. Ralph Hise said in a release Monday.
Anita Earls, a lawyer representing voters who sued over the districts, said there's still time to draw new district lines. The lawmakers' attorneys have said more than 100 General Assembly districts would have to be redrawn to comply with the order.
"Many North Carolinians have been participating in unfair elections in racially gerrymandered districts for far too long," she said in a news release.
Rick Hasen, a University of California-Irvine professor and election law expert, wrote in a blog post that Monday's opinion makes holding 2017 legislative election much harder, "but it is not impossible."
Associated Press writer Mark Sherman in Washington contributed to this report.