Law & the Courts

SCOTUS Rules Gerrymandering Constitutional, Says Courts Have No Role in Deciding Partisanship Claims

(Carlos Barria/Reuters)

The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that state legislatures are entitled to draw congressional districts in such a way as to benefit one political party over another.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the 5–4 conservative majority, argued that the founders understood that state legislatures would seek political advantage when drawing congressional districts, and suggested any efforts to halt the practice should not go through the courts.

“We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” the chief justice wrote. “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.”

Writing in dissent, Justice Elena Kagan chastised her colleagues for their narrow understanding of the judiciary’s role.

“For the first time ever, this court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities,” she wrote.

The Court had before it one case out of Maryland, in which Democrats redrew the sixth congressional district in a way that advantaged their party in 2011, and another out of North Carolina, where Republicans drew a map with the explicit intent of securing “partisan advantage.”

“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.”

North Carolina Republicans’ plan was successful: They won ten out of 13 districts in 2016 despite winning just 53 percent of the statewide vote. They were then forced to appeal to the Supreme Court to defend their map after a three-judge panel in a North Carolina district court ruled it unconstitutional in August.

While the Supreme Court has never intervened in a partisan gerrymandering case, courts in five states have have struck down congressional maps as overly partisan, and voters in Michigan, Ohio, Colorado, Missouri, and Utah voted last year to limit state lawmakers’ autonomy in drawing congressional maps.

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