partisan gerrymandering

In Rucho v. Common Cause the Supreme Court held 5-4 that partisan gerrymandering claims are non-justiciable—meaning that a federal court cannot decide them.

Partisan gerrymandering is the practice of drawing legislative districts to benefit one political party. In Davis v. Bandemer (1986) a majority of the Supreme Court held that partisan gerrymandering cases are justiciable. In that case and since then the Court has been unable to lay out a standard for when partisan dominance “is too much.” In Rucho v. Common Cause the Supreme Court announced it will stop trying.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion which his conservative colleagues joined (Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh). Unsurprisingly, the Court emphasized the role of state legislatures in districting:  “The Framers were aware of electoral districting problems and considered what to do about them. They settled on a characteristic approach, assigning the issue to the state legislatures, expressly checked and balanced by the Federal Congress.”

The Supreme Court heard oral argument—yet again—in two cases arguing it should adopt a standard for when partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional. Before argument court watchers were focused on Chief Justice Roberts, but during argument Justice Kavanaugh stole the show.

In 1986 in Davis v. Bandemer six Supreme Court Justices agreed that some amount of partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional. But the Court has never laid out a test for making the determination.

Most recently, last term, with Justice Kennedy still on the bench, the Supreme Court again failed to articulate a standard for unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering. The two cases before the Court today came from North Carolina and Maryland favoring Republicans and Democrats, respectively. By almost any measure the gerrymanders were unapologetic and extreme.   

Now that the Court has five solidly conservative members many have speculated that these Justices will rule that partisan gerrymandering claims raise non-justiciable political questions, effectively ending litigation over this question.

In 1986 a majority of the Supreme Court agreed that partisan gerrymandering may be unconstitutional in certain circumstances. But in that case and since then the Court has failed to agree on a standard for when partisan gerrymandering crosses the line.

Last term in Gill v. Whitford the Supreme Court again failed to articulate a standard for unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering. Instead, it held that the challengers failed to demonstrate they had standing to bring their case.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear two partisan gerrymandering cases this term.

In 1986 a majority of the Supreme Court agreed that partisan gerrymandering may be unconstitutional in certain circumstances. But in that case and since then the Court has failed to agree on a standard for when partisan gerrymandering crosses the line. In Gill v. Whitford and Benisek v. Lamone the Supreme Court again declined to adopt a standard for what constitutes an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.

In Gill the Court concluded that the gerrymandering challengers failed to demonstrate they had standing to bring their lawsuit. In Benisek the Court allowed Maryland’s redistricting plan to go into effect because, among other reasons, the challengers were too delayed in bringing their lawsuit.  

The challengers to the redistricting of Maryland’s Sixth Congressional District just might win—if the Supreme Court actually decides their case.

In Benisek v. Lamone in 2011 the Maryland legislature needed to move about 10,000 voters out of the Sixth Congressional District to comply with “one-person one-vote.” It moved about 360,000 Marylanders out of the district and about 350,000 Marylanders in the district. As a result only 34 percent of voters were registered Republican versus 47 percent before redistricting.

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