What The Supreme Court’s Gerrymandering Ruling Means

The conservative majority in the Supreme Court just issued a ruling that leaves the problem of partisan gerrymandering up to the people to solve.
The U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington. Jan. 25, 2012 (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

The U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington. Jan. 25, 2012 (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Today, the Supreme Court issued a consequential ruling on the practice lawmakers utilize to draw districts favorable to their political party. In a 5-4 conservative majority decision, the Justices ruled that federal courts would not weigh in on partisan gerrymandering cases. This leaves the matter to state courts, and ultimately, Congress to decide whether to outlaw partisan gerrymandering at the federal level.

The case before them was the Democratic-advantaged districts in Maryland and the Republican-advantaged districts in North Carolina. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion stating, “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.”

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After stating that federal courts should not weigh in on this matter, Chief Justice Roberts appears to concede that he believes partisan gerrymandering practices run contrary to the principles of a healthy democracy:

“Excessive partisanship in districting leads to results that reasonably seem unjust. But the fact that such gerrymandering is incompatible with democratic principles does not mean that the solution lies with the federal judiciary.”

As Rantt Staff Writer, and law student, Bob Cunningham pointed out in our community Slack chat (which you can join), Roberts explicitly states that federal courts can still rule on racial gerrymandering cases, as they’ve done in the past. Chief Justice Roberts wrote:

“Racial discrimination in districting also raises constitutional issues that can be addressed by the federal courts.

Liberal Justice Elena Kagan wrote an impassioned dissenting opinion:

“For the first time ever, this Court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities. And not just any constitutional violation. The partisan gerrymanders in these cases deprived citizens of the most fundamental of their constitutional rights: the rights to participate equally in the political process, to join with others to advance political beliefs, and to choose their political representatives. In so doing, the partisan gerrymanders here debased and dishonored our democracy, turning upside-down the core American idea that all governmental power derives from the people…”

In a separate ruling today, Chief Justice Roberts sided with liberals in a 5-4 ruling rejecting the Trump Administration’s current request to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census. This is important because redistricting is intrinsically tied to the census.

It will be interesting to see how these rulings influence America’s top gerrymandered states. Needless to say, it will take significant mobilization on the part of voters to get members of Congress, who often represent gerrymandered states, to pass a law banning gerrymandering at the federal level.

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News // 2020 / Census / Gerrymandering / Supreme Court