Court allows South Carolina district lines despite gerrymander ruling

Washington — A panel of federal district court judges in South Carolina said Thursday that the 2024 elections for a congressional district in the state can be conducted using a map it determined was racially gerrymandered.

The three judges overseeing the redistricting dispute granted a request from South Carolina Republican legislative leaders, who asked the court to reinstate the lines for Congressional District 1 that GOP state lawmakers drew following the 2020 Census. 

The Republicans had asked the court to pause its own January 2023 decision invalidating the lines of the district, represented by GOP Rep. Nancy Mace, while it awaits a ruling from the Supreme Court on whether to uphold the map. They argued that the 2024 election cycle in South Carolina is now underway — the candidate-filing period opened March 16 and closes April 1 — and last-minute changes to congressional district lines and the state’s election calendar would confuse voters and lead to disorder.

At least five candidates have filed to run in the primaries and have begun campaigning in Mace’s coastal district, as well as the neighboring district represented by Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn.

The judges said in a short five-page decision that the “present circumstances make it plainly impractical for the court to adopt a remedial plan for” Congressional District 1 before an April 27 deadline for military and overseas ballots to be mailed. South Carolina’s statewide primary elections are set for June 11. 

The district court panel noted that it had concluded that the district is unlawful under the 14th Amendment, but “with the primary election procedures rapidly approaching, the appeal before the Supreme Court still pending, and no remedial plan in place, the ideal must bend to the practical.”

Leah Aden, senior counsel for the Legal Defense Fund who argued before the redistricting case before the Supreme Court, said in response to the district court’s decision that another election “under an infirm map is justice delayed when plaintiffs have made every effort to get a decision and remedy before another election under a map that denies them their rights.”

Republican leaders had made their request to the district court on March 7, but then sought emergency relief from the Supreme Court on March 18 because the panel hadn’t yet ruled. The Supreme Court has yet to act on the GOP lawmakers’ bid for it to intervene.

The South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP and a voter challenged the GOP-crafted congressional voting map in federal district court in the 2021 redistricting cycle. South Carolina Republicans had said they constructed the district to produce a stronger Republican tilt. Mace narrowly won the seat in 2020, but cruised to reelection in the 2022 midterm elections, after the new lines were enacted.

In January 2023, the three-judge panel concluded that state lawmakers racially gerrymandered Congressional District 1 and designed it with racially discriminatory intent.

The district court blocked the state from holding elections for Mace’s district until lawmakers approved a constitutionally valid plan, and later gave the GOP-led legislature until 30 days after the Supreme Court rules to submit new boundaries. It amended that earlier order to bar elections from being conducted under the GOP-drawn lines for Congressional District 1 after the 2024 election cycle.

The high court considered in October whether Republican lawmakers impermissibly used race as the predominant factor when drawing the lines for Congressional District 1, and had been asked by GOP legislative leaders and the NAACP to issue its ruling by Jan. 1. But that deadline has long passed without any decision from the justices.

It’s unclear when the Supreme Court will rule in the case, but during arguments in the fall, a majority of the court appeared skeptical of the lower court’s decision.