Supreme Court Halts Judge-Ordered Redistricting in Ohio, Michigan

May 26, 2019 Updated: May 26, 2019

WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court has granted emergency stays halting forced congressional redistricting statewide in both Ohio and Michigan that was ordered by U.S. district court judges who found that boundaries of electoral districts had been improperly drawn.

The emergency orders were granted while the Supreme Court separately considers whether state electoral maps in North Carolina and Maryland were gerrymandered, or unfairly manipulated for partisan advantage. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the two different legal challenges on March 26 and is expected to rule on those cases next month.

This means ahead of the presidential and congressional elections in 2020 that the electoral maps of four states in all—Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, and Maryland—could change dramatically, leading to upheaval and grief for both political parties.

The applications, granted May 24, on the cusp of the Memorial Day weekend, were submitted to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, acting in her capacity as the Supreme Court’s Circuit Justice for the Sixth Circuit, which includes both Ohio and Michigan. The orders didn’t explain the court’s rationale for acting in the two cases. No justices filed dissents opposing the stays. Granting these stays implies the Supreme Court will hear these cases.

The lower court ruling concerning Ohio had required the state to have a new electoral map in place by June 14. That three-judge panel also indicated it could make a new map on its own with assistance from a judicial officer known as a special master. The lawsuit that led to the order was brought by the Ohio A. Philip Randolph Institute and other left-leaning activist groups. Randolph was a socialist labor leader who died in 1979.

The judges—two appointed by Democratic presidents, and one appointed by a Republican president—were equally emphatic that Democrats were treated unfairly in Ohio’s redistricting process.

“We are convinced by the evidence that this partisan gerrymander was intentional and effective and that no legitimate justification accounts for its extremity … The 2012 map dilutes the votes of Democratic voters by packing and cracking them into districts that are so skewed toward one party that the electoral outcome is predetermined.”

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, a Republican, previously denounced the panel’s ruling, describing it as a “fundamentally political act that has no basis whatsoever in the constitution.”

In the lower court ruling pertaining to Michigan, a panel of three federal judges in Detroit ordered the Wolverine State’s electoral map be redrawn because of what the judges unanimously called an unconstitutional “political gerrymander of ‘historical proportions’” that caused “severe” constitutional violations.

The redistricting in Michigan was approved by the GOP-controlled state legislature in 2011 and signed into law by the then-Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, in time for the 2012 elections. The judges found the redrawn boundaries ran afoul of the First and 14th Amendment rights of the voters who initiated the legal action.

“Judges and courts should not be in the business of drawing legislative boundaries,” U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.) said after the panel ruled.

The Supreme Court has never struck down an entire state map for partisan gerrymandering.

Traditionally, conservative members of the Supreme Court tend to favor treating redistricting as a political question that should be left to lawmakers who have been elected to make this kind of decision. Liberal justices tend to be more open to intervening in the map-drawing process to correct perceived injustices.

In the 435-seat U.S. House of Representatives, Democrats currently hold 235 seats and Republicans hold 198. There are two vacancies.

Republicans hold 12 of Ohio’s congressional seats; Democrats hold the remaining four. Michigan’s 14 congressional seats are divided evenly between the two parties.

Of North Carolina’s 13 seats, eight are in Republican hands. Three are held by Democrats. There are two vacancies. Of Maryland’s 8 seats, seven are in Democrat hands. One is held by a Republican.

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