Supreme Court lets partisan gerrymanders stand in blow to (mostly) Democrats

Christopher Wilson
Senior Writer

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 along partisan lines that the federal courts cannot overrule state legislatures in drawing district lines, ending challenges to gerrymandered maps meant to help one party or the other.

In an opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court stated, “Partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” adding, “We have no commission to allocate political power and influence in the absence of a constitutional directive or legal standards to guide us in the exercise of such authority.”

Justice Elena Kagan, dissenting, stated, “For the first time ever, this Court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities.” Kagan added that the decision was “tragically wrong.”

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“Is this how American democracy is supposed to work?” she wrote.

The Supreme Court was ruling on cases from North Carolina (Rucho v. Common Cause) and Maryland (Benisek v. Lamone). The plaintiffs in the first case charged that North Carolina Republicans had rigged the state’s district map to help their party in the U.S. House of Representatives. The second case involved one district that was allegedly drawn to help elect a Democrat. A lower court had decided that the Republican-drawn districts in North Carolina were so politically biased that they violated the voters’ rights under the U.S. Constitution. In the 2018 midterms, the overall congressional vote in North Carolina was close to even, but Republicans won 10 of the 13 seats.

“I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats,” explained David Lewis, a Republican member of the General Assembly’s redistricting committee. “So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country.”

Voting-rights advocates had hoped the court would uphold lower-court rulings that partisan gerrymandering was an impediment to democracy. Justice Anthony Kennedy in earlier opinions suggested he was open to arguments that partisan gerrymandering might be unconstitutional, but he retired last year and was replaced by Brett Kavanaugh, who sided with the majority in Thursday’s decision. Justice Neil Gorsuch, another Trump appointee, who filled a seat that became vacant under President Barack Obama, also sided with Roberts.

Districts that overwhelmingly favor one party tend to push legislators away from compromise, because they are accountable only to primary challengers, who generally come from the extreme wings of their parties. The gerrymanders were so successful in some states that although Democratic candidates in total received a substantial majority of votes, Republicans came away with a majority of legislative seats, allowing them to pass bills without fear of electoral consequences.

With the Supreme Court refusing to step in, there is little to stop legislatures from drawing even more partisan district maps after the 2020 census. The decision also has the effect of reversing lower-court decisions, where Republican-drawn maps in Ohio and Michigan were struck down for being excessively gerrymandered.

Some thought Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee, might be persuaded to side with the liberals on this issue, but the chief justice maintained his record of voting with the conservative wing of the court, as he did in cases restricting the scope of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 (Shelby County v. Holder) and overturning campaign contribution limits in 2010 (Citizens United v. FEC). Roberts did vote with the liberal justices in a different case Thursday that also has implications for voting rights, temporarily stopping the Trump administration from adding a question on citizenship to the census.

A ballot measure calling for independent redistricting measures passed in Michigan in 2018, and similar measures were also successful in traditionally red states such as Missouri and Utah during the 2018 midterms, although legislatures there are attempting to undermine the results. Similar measures to independently draw the lines for federal and state districts also passed easily in Colorado.

Gerrymandering is not a new phenomenon, dating back to the 19th century when Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry’s administration drew a state legislature map so convoluted that one district was said to look like a salamander. But the issue took on new intensity following a 2010 Republican effort to change the district lines called Project REDMAP. After taking over a number of state legislatures and governors’ mansions, Republicans drew lines that packed Democratic voters into the fewest possible districts, while distributing Republicans to create as many safe GOP seats as possible.

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