RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- North Carolina's highest court on Wednesday pushed back the March election primaries for legislative, congressional and judicial seats to give state courts time to review lawsuits claiming the Republican-controlled legislature illegally gerrymandered some districts.
The decision by the state Supreme Court comes after a state Court of Appeals panel initially blocked filing for legislative and congressional candidates on Monday, only to have the decision reversed when the full 15-member intermediate appeals court was asked to weigh in on the matter. Filing began Tuesday for those races instead.
Wednesday's order suspends all candidate filing in the state until the litigation is resolved and delays the March 8 primary for two months. The Supreme Court says three trial judges hearing a pair of lawsuits must rule by Jan. 11. The ruling will then likely be appealed.
The delay is being granted "in light of the great public interest" in the matter and "the need for urgency in reaching a final resolution ... at the earliest possible opportunity," the order reads.
Primary elections for the U.S. Senate seat of the retiring GOP Sen. Richard Burr and U.S. House, General Assembly and judicial seats, along with elections for other local posts, will now be held May 17, according to the order.
The groups that filed the lawsuits -- the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters and math experts in one case and voters backed by an affiliate of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee in the other -- have said voters would be irrevocably harmed if elections went forward under the approved lines.
The lawsuits claim the legislature manipulated the boundaries according to the political leanings of voters, the racial composition of voters, or both. In doing so, the suits say, lawmakers gave Republicans nearly unbreakable majorities in the state House and Senate and nearly assured victories in at least 10 of the 14 U.S. House seats starting with the 2022 elections. The state is closely divided in statewide elections.
Republicans hold eight of the 13 current House seats. North Carolina is getting an additional seat due to population growth, so the delegation's partisan composition could affect whether the GOP regains the U.S. House next year.
The groups that filed the lawsuits want the courts to order the General Assembly to redraw the lines.
The delay "will allow voters to be heard in court and to hopefully establish once and for all that our state constitution forbids partisan gerrymandering," League of Conservation Voters Executive Director Carrie Clark said in a news release. "We will continue going to bat for voters so they will vote under fair maps for elections next year and beyond."
Lawyers for GOP legislative leaders who were sued say the boundaries are lawful, created through a transparent mapmaking process that prohibited the use of political data in map software programs. They also argue that state Supreme Court rulings in the early 2000s allow legislators to consider partisan advantage in mapmaking.
Last week, the three trial judges rejected requests by the plaintiffs to block the use of the approved lines, setting appeals in motion. Wednesday's order came from the entire Supreme Court, not individual justices. Four of the seven justices are registered Democrats.
"The court didn't even articulate a legal or factual basis for suspending elections," said GOP state Rep. Ralph Hise, one of the lawsuits' defendants. "The Democrats on the Supreme Court want districts that elect more Democrats, so they're blocking every election in the state until they get their way."
Over 1,400 people whom the State Board of Elections says had already filed across North Carolina this week will remain candidates for those same offices when filing resumes, unless they withdraw at that time, the order reads. Candidate filing had been supposed to continue through midday Dec. 17.
The ruling means candidates will have several more weeks to raise money and campaign before a primary.
The top-of-the-ballot races will be for the party nominations to succeed Burr, who isn't seeking reelection. Former Gov. Pat McCrory, U.S. Rep. Ted Budd and former Rep. Mark Walker remain among the announced candidates for the GOP nomination, with state Sen. Jeff Jackson and former Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley among the Democratic hopefuls.
Republicans have controlled both the state House and Senate since 2011, allowing them to shape redistricting this past decade.
In 2019, a different three-judge panel declared there was evidence that GOP legislators created extreme partisan gerrymanders when drawing U.S. House districts in 2016 and legislative districts in 2017. The legislature redrew the maps in time for the 2020 elections. But the panel's declarations were never affirmed on appeal.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, whose veto stamp can't be used on redistricting maps, had urged in a friend-of-the-court brief for the Supreme Court to intervene.
Wednesday's order "restores faith in the rule of law," Cooper said in a statement.