Redistricting by state legislatures is always a nest of insider politics.
The legislative majority always controls who gets into the rooms where the deals are cut. The real work is hidden from all others. Their lawyers especially clamp down on who speaks publicly outside the private rooms.
Tennessee’s Republican-dominated legislature made clear Monday night that this year was special. By a strict party-line vote, they put their full stamp of proud approval on a new redistricting scheme. How ugly is their work-product?
In Davidson County, it corrals Black and brown voting precincts off into three other congressional districts, which of course are Republican. In less than 24 hours, the gambit claimed an intended victim: Veteran Congressman Jim Cooper, a Democrat, announced he will not run again.
Members of the GOP supermajority congratulated themselves on these dubious accomplishments. Most of them, after dutifully pushing their green Yes buttons, just left the building without much comment. They had done as they were told.
The GOP bosses, eager this year to pick up more Republican votes especially in Congress, are mightily pleased with their handiwork – “Gerrymandering 2022” – though none of them dare call it that. They never explain, thinking they don’t have to, and largely getting away with it. Republican audacity lives comfortably today in Tennessee.
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Republicans crossed a line
What happens next is important, and with redistricting Tennessee history is particularly relevant.
Before 1962, federal courts stayed out of state legislatures’ redistricting decisions. Judges deemed them “political” and beneath the purview of federal courts.
But then came the landmark Baker v. Carr case (brought by Tennessee cities, in fact) leading to the high court’s “one person, one vote” doctrine: Redistricting no longer would have stopped at the legislature’s door if citizens were handed unconstitutionally unfair districts.
State legislators would no longer be the final arbiters of fair districting if partisan decisions could be shown to have injured the voting power of minority citizens.
This latest insider deal-making by Republican in Tennessee – especially the slicing up of the Fifth Congressional District, shifting its parts into three largely-rural Republican districts – deserves a more balanced test.
The standard defense of the incumbent gerrymanderers is always the same: “The other party does it to us when they have the chance!” That, of course, is no defense at all. Not this time. This time Republicans crossed a line.
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'It's going to be bedlam,' says Baker v. Carr attorney
For perspective, I spoke with the Nashville lawyer Harris Gilbert, who was on the legal team that took Baker v. Carr to the Supreme Court in 1961. I asked him what he thought of these choices by the GOP supermajority in Tennessee.
“This is a wild gerrymandering,” he told me, with no hesitation. “I haven’t seen any reason to break apart Davidson County. I don’t understand why the Republican legislators needed to do it. There have been slicing-up operations like this in some other states, but I haven’t seen any reason why it’s necessary or even slightly necessary to shift these people in Nashville…. It’s going to be bedlam and there will not be very good relationships in those other districts. It’s just using Democratic-voting areas as feeding grounds for a political party.”
Gilbert suggests that peeling away Black and brown voting precincts into rural white-majority districts will dilute the voting power of those citizens and will leave minority populations “without political force.” I asked if he believes this latest scheme is ripe for a court challenge, and he replied “Yes, I do.”
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Such challenges are underway now in other states. A lawsuit of this type was recently filed by citizens in Kentucky. The Ohio Supreme Court has struck down a new congressional district map, ruling that it violates that state’s constitution.
No longer is redistricting a harmless game of one political party scheming to one-up the other. Not this time. This time, the Republicans got greedy. This time it’s more serious: It seeks to neutralize Black and brown voters.
Tennessee’s GOP deemed their current supermajority, in our legislature and Tennessee’s tiny congressional delegation, were not enough. Cynically, they wanted more.
This may not end well for anybody, but it will surely not be over until the courts say it is.
Keel Hunt is a columnist for the USA TODAY Network Tennessee Network and the author of three books on Tennessee politics and culture. Read more at www.KeelHunt.com.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Gerrymandering: Tennessee district maps will drag them back to court