DemDaily: Justifying Gerrymandering
July 2, 2019
In one of its most impactful decisions regarding our election system, the Supreme Court of the United States(SCOTUS) ruled last week that federal courts are powerless to intervene in partisan gerrymandering.
The 5-4 decision, delivered by Chief Justice John Roberts and joined by the four other conservative justices, is considered a victory for Republicans, and will have a profound effect on the way political battlelines are drawn in the future.
Redistricting is the process of drawing electoral district boundaries for the purposes of electing representatives to a legislative body, and is based on the decennial count (every ten years) of the US population by the US Census Bureau.
Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing or manipulating those district lines to the unfair political advantage of a particular party or group.
While both parties have tested the partisan drawing of congressional and legislative districts, Republicans, who hold control of a majority of legislatures, have mastered the practice over the last decade.
In 99 state legislative chambers throughout the country, Republicans currently hold 61 of the chambers and Democrats hold the majority in 37 chambers. One chamber, Alaska, shares power between the two parties.
Hence, an unencumbered redistricting process advantages Republicans.
Unconstitutional gerrymandering has been the subject of lawsuits filed in over a dozen states in the last two years, most with the objective of reaching the high court.
In April a federal Court ruled that Michigan's Republican-drawn state legislative and congressional district map was unconstitutional, stating, "This court joins the growing chorus of federal courts that have, in recent years, held that partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional."
Although most lower courts have ruled similarly, two cases made their way on appeal to the Supreme Court.
|"We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts. Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions." -- Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. for the Majority|
In March, SCOTUS heard arguments in the two cases, Rucho v. Common Cause (North Carolina) and Lamone v. Benisek (Maryland).
The North Carolina plaintiffs claimed that the State's districting plan discriminated against Democrats, while the Maryland plaintiffs claimed that their State's plan discriminated against Republicans.The plaintiffs alleged violations of the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Elections Clause, and Article I, §2. The District Courts in both cases ruled in favor of the plaintiffs that the maps were unconstitutional, and the defendants appealed to the Supreme Court.
Last Thursday's decision places the responsibility for redistricting on Congress and the states.
While acknowledging that extreme partisanship in drawing districts does lead to results that "reasonably seem unjust," Justice Roberts said that it is not up to the courts to determine a remedy for what is a political issue.
This emboldens even more contentious, and critical, battles in the states in 2019 and 2020, for ultimate control of the 2021 redistricting process.
For now, it is advantage Republicans.
|"Of all times to abandon the Court's duty to declare the law, this was not the one. The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the Court's role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections." -- Justice Elena Kagan, for the Dissent|
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Sources: SCOTUSBlog, SupremeCourt.gov