By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday put on hold a lower court's ruling requiring North Carolina to immediately redraw state legislative districts found to have been be mapped out in a way that crammed black voters into a limited number of them to dilute their electoral clout.
The high court's brief order also delayed a special election the lower court had said should be held this year.
"On behalf of our clients, we continue to trust that the district court's ruling will be upheld and new districts ultimately will be drawn that are not based on race," said Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a civil rights group that represents a group of voters who challenged the districts drawn by North Carolina's Republican-controlled legislature in 2011.
A three-judge district court panel ruled last August the districts were racial "gerrymanders," with boundaries drawn to diminish the voting power of minorities, and violated the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law.
Packing minorities into a limited number of legislative districts would reduce their influence in electing a larger number of lawmakers, increasing the sway of white voters.
The panel ruled in November that the state should draw new districts and hold a special election. The state asked the Supreme Court to put the ruling on hold until the justices decide whether to uphold the decision, which state officials have appealed.
The plaintiffs sued in 2015, saying legislative district lines were drawn so as to dilute the state's black vote, which tends to back Democrats, and give Republicans an advantage.
The Supreme Court in December heard arguments in another redistricting case from North Carolina concerning U.S. House of Representatives districts. Plaintiffs in that case also said that race was unlawfully considered in drawing the boundaries.
Race can be considered only in certain instances, such as when states are seeking to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act. That law protects minority voters and was enacted to address a history of racial discrimination in voting, especially in Southern states.
The Supreme Court's order did not make note of any dissenting votes among the eight justices.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)