RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- North Carolina judges on Monday blocked the state's congressional map from being used in the 2020 elections, ruling that voters had a strong likelihood of winning a lawsuit that argued Republicans unlawfully manipulated district lines for partisan gain.
The panel of three Superior Court judges issued a preliminary injunction preventing elections under the district lines, starting with the March 3 primary.
The judges halted the use of these districts less than two months after they struck down state House and Senate districts. There they found extreme political manipulation of the lines similar to what voters suing over the congressional map also say occurred.
In the ruling Monday, the judges — Paul Ridgeway, Alma Hinton and Joseph Crosswhite — agreed that "there is a substantial likelihood that plaintiffs will prevail on the merits of this action by showing beyond a reasonable doubt that the 2016 congressional districts are extreme partisan gerrymanders" in violation of the North Carolina Constitution.
The judges gave no date by which a new map must be drawn, but suggested lawmakers could redraw them on their own quickly to ensure congressional primaries be held as scheduled. The State Board of Elections has said lines needed to be finalized by Dec. 15.
"The court respectfully urges the General Assembly to adopt an expeditious process," the judges wrote.
Republican state legislators made plain when they drew that map that the lines were designed to help the GOP retain 10 of the state's 13 congressional seats, but argued such strategies weren't unlawful. Republican defendants in the lawsuit and three sitting GOP U.S. House members opposed the injunction request.
The judges' ruling, which could be appealed, would likely lead to a map with more competitive districts for the November race — making it more difficult for national Republicans to retake control of the U.S. House. The lawsuit is being bankrolled by a national Democratic group led by former Attorney General Eric Holder.
Democratic and unaffiliated voters who sued Sept. 27 sought the injunction before any trial is held on their partisan gerrymandering claims. They said the case was extremely similar to a successful lawsuit over state legislative districts.
"For nearly a decade, Republicans have forced the people of North Carolina to vote in districts that were manipulated for their own partisan advantage," Holder said in a news release. "Now — finally — the era of Republican gerrymandering in the state is coming to an end."
Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican, said he wasn't surprised by the congressional ruling given the recent decision involving the legislative districts, calling it judicial activism and a "flawed approach to redistricting law." Berger said he expected the legislature would likely redraw the map, but no decision has been made.
The same three judges hearing the congressional case ruled in that case just two months ago, finding Republicans performed extreme political manipulation in those maps to ensure they could hold majorities in almost any political environment. Republicans were ordered to redraw those lines. Also Monday, the judges issued a separate ruling in the legislative case, upholding all of the changes that the General Assembly made to several dozen state House and Senate districts. The plaintiffs who sued there had wanted a third-party expert to step in and rework 19 House districts.
In the current congressional lawsuit, the plaintiffs' attorneys convinced the judges that evidence already accumulated from separate federal litigation challenging the congressional lines shows they are likely to succeed in the state case.
The federal case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided 5-4 in June that federal courts would not get involved in partisan redistricting claims. But the justices left the door open for state courts to intervene.
Opponents of the current congressional map have latched on to the comment made by state Rep. David Lewis during the 2016 remapping. Lewis said at the time he was proposing a 10-3 map "because I do not believe it's possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats." Lewis said later he was joking.
Attorneys for Lewis and other Republican lawmakers who are defendants in the state congressional lawsuit case reject the plaintiffs' partisan gerrymandering claims. They told the judges it was too late to make congressional map changes, since candidate filing begins in early December and that facts in the case were not settled. Changes now, the GOP's lawyers said, would result in voter confusion and extremely low turnout should the primary have to be delayed.