Supreme Court sidesteps consideration of partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin, Maryland redistricting cases

Supreme Court sidesteps consideration of partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin, Maryland redistricting cases

The US Supreme Court on Monday dealt a setback to election reformers by declining to use high-profile cases from Wisconsin and Maryland to curb the ability of state lawmakers to draw electoral districts purely for partisan advantage.

In the Maryland case, the court unanimously chose to stick to the technical details of the case: whether Maryland's current map can stay in place while it is being challenged on First Amendment grounds.

The court ruled against Wisconsin Democrats who argued the current district maps are unfair and disenfranchise a segment of voters in the state. Two years later, Republicans won 52 percent of the two-party statewide vote, yet they won 63 of the 99 seats.

As for Wisconsin, the case has been ongoing since October.

Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, said that the challengers in Wisconsin needed to provide evidence that their individual votes in their specific districts were being diluted. In doing so, they also hadn't shown how this would potentially harm the district indefinitely, as the Supreme Court's decision in this case would not affect any elections this coming fall.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Elena Kagan set out a detailed road map for how such claims could be framed and presented.

Roberts wrote that the Supreme Court's role "is to vindicate the individual rights of the people appearing before it", not generalized partisan preferences.

"This case is very much still alive", attorney Paul Smith, who represented the Democrat plaintiffs, said in a press release.

The case centered around the districts Republicans drew in Wisconsin in 2011, which heavily favored their own party.

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In response, Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, responded, "The Supreme Court missed an opportunity today to lay down a firm marker as to when partisan gerrymandering is so extreme that it violates the constitutional rights of voters". In 2004, the court upheld the practice of gerrymandering in a case concerning Pennsylvania's map, finding that the practice of gerrymandering was outside the court's purview and "nonjusticiable".

In a case that was pending since early October, the justices said challengers to the design of 99 state Assembly districts in Wisconsin can not tackle the entire map at once but must target their specific districts. Gill was a challenge to Wisconsin's Republican-drawn state legislative map, where the challengers were hoping to establish a statewide standard to determine whether a partisan gerrymander was too extreme.

Republicans in the district sued, arguing that the new map violated their First Amendment protection against retaliation on the basis of their political beliefs.

Partisan breakdown: State Assembly: 64 Republicans, 35 Democrats.

The claims: Racial and partisan gerrymandering. For decades, the Court has been hesitant to weigh in on partisan gerrymandering, and the decision affirms their decades-long stance. One was a Wisconsin lawsuit challenging a severe redistricting of state legislative bodies that led to Republicans getting a big majority of seats despite winning a minority of votes in 2012 and 2014. To make the broader argument, the Wisconsin challenge relied on a metric known as the Efficiency Gap.

Sure, the court might change their fate with a single ruling. The party on the wrong end of redistricting, she wrote, "may face difficulties fundraising, attracting volunteers, and recruiting candidates to run for office", thereby harming the constitutional right to free association. In a separate case, the U.S. Supreme Court past year ordered a lower court to reconsider previously rejected claims that the Legislature and governor unconstitutionally diluted black voting by packing a high percentage of black voters into 11 state House districts. Third was the "legal uncertainty" surrounding partisan gerrymandering.

Kagan laid out a road map for future challenges, including under a test Kennedy has proposed: that partisan redistricting schemes might be judged as punishment for voters due to their past political allegiances, which would violate the First Amendment.

The judges said Republicans crammed Democrats into some districts and spread them out thinly across others as a way to create more districts conducive to a GOP candidate. The court has not been successful in developing a test concerning the overreliance on politics. Right now, he said, there is no "clean sense of standing", and no "clean methodology" about how to challenge partisan gerrymandering.

There are many issues with our electoral process - including problems with campaign finance and voter registration - but gerrymandering stands out as the worst, writes Norris.

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