© Reuters

By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) -North Carolina Republicans on Tuesday urged the state’s high court to reverse course and permit lawmakers to draw politically advantageous legislative districts, an outcome that would boost the party’s chances of holding onto its tenuous majority in the U.S. House of Representatives next year.

The hearing in Raleigh took place after the state Supreme Court’s conservative justices agreed to reconsider a 2022 ruling that found partisan redistricting, or gerrymandering, was unlawful under the state constitution.

That ruling, issued by what was then a Democratic-majority court, invalidated a Republican-drawn map that would likely have secured 11 of the state’s 14 congressional seats for Republicans. Instead, Democrats and Republicans split the seats evenly in November’s elections under a court-approved map.

In the same elections, Republicans flipped two Democratic seats on the court, installing a 5-2 conservative majority that weeks later made the extremely unusual decision to rehear the redistricting case. Legal experts have said the move suggests the court intends to throw out the earlier ruling.

Tuesday’s hearing offered little evidence to the contrary. Several conservative justices appeared sympathetic to the Republicans’ arguments, while the court’s two Democrats expressed skepticism.

Phillip Strach, a lawyer for Republican lawmakers, said the power to oversee redistricting resides in the legislature, not the courts.

“Just to be clear, you’re saying … that the legislature has free rein to enact legislative districts that give extreme advantage to one political party,” said Justice Anita Earls, a Democrat.

“This court does not have the power to address that issue,” Strach replied.

Lali Madduri, a lawyer for the voting rights groups who challenged the original maps, said allowing extreme partisan redistricting would essentially disenfranchise supporters of the opposing party.

“The ultimate standard here is whether the voters have substantially equal voting power,” she said.

While a reversal would aid Republicans’ quest to maintain their U.S. House majority, it could doom a separate Republican-backed effort to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to grant state legislatures sweeping new powers over federal elections.

North Carolina Republicans also appealed last year’s redistricting decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, where they advanced a contentious legal theory, the independent state legislature doctrine, that has gained traction in conservative legal circles.

The theory holds that it is unconstitutional for state courts to review lawmakers’ actions regarding federal elections and would give legislators unfettered authority over voting rules and redistricting.

Democrats have warned that doing so would invite new restrictions that would threaten fair elections, while Republicans say it would corral activist state courts that are undermining legislative power.

The Supreme Court’s conservative justices appeared to agree during oral arguments in December. But after the North Carolina court’s decision to rehear the case, the U.S. Supreme Court asked the various parties in the case to weigh in on whether the court still has jurisdiction over the matter.

If the justices decide they no longer have jurisdiction, they could dismiss the case without issuing a ruling.

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