Supreme Court Bars Federal Courts From Deciding Gerrymandering Cases

June 30, 2019 Updated: June 30, 2019

WASHINGTON—In a landmark ruling June 27, the Supreme Court narrowly rejected claims from Democrats in North Carolina and Republicans in Maryland that their respective state electoral maps had been unconstitutionally manipulated for partisan advantage.

The decision came after the Supreme Court ruled June 17 in a 5-4 vote that the Republican-controlled Virginia House of Delegates had no legal standing to challenge that state’s map. The court agreed with Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring, who argued that members of one chamber of the General Assembly had no legal right to speak for the Old Dominion and had usurped his authority to defend state laws in court.

There are other ongoing challenges to state maps, particularly in Michigan and Ohio, where federal courts had ordered maps redrawn. But these cases appear to have been stopped dead by the court’s definitive new ruling.

Also on June 27, the Supreme Court narrowly rejected the Trump administration’s rationale for asking individuals responding to the 2020 Census whether they are U.S. citizens. President Donald Trump criticized the court’s decision and suggested delaying the census to give officials a chance to satisfy the court’s concerns. It’s unclear if that delay will happen. The census counts both legal and illegal residents of the United States. Results are used to allocate federal dollars and determine representation in Congress.

Fights over redistricting in two states prompted the new ruling. In the presidential battleground state of North Carolina, the legislature redrew the map, with the result that Republicans had a 10 to 3 advantage over Democrats in the delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives. In deep-blue Maryland, the map was redrawn with the result that Democrats had a 7 to 1 advantage over Republicans.

In a 5-4 opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court held that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts. The case was argued March 26.

The other four conservative justices joined in the majority opinion. Justice Elena Kagan wrote a dissenting opinion, in which her three liberal colleagues joined.

The majority opinion in Rucho v. Common Cause leaves in place the North Carolina electoral map, which favors Republicans, and the Maryland electoral map, which favors Democrats.

Although “[e]xcessive partisanship in districting leads to results that reasonably seem unjust” this “does not mean that the solution lies with the federal judiciary,” Roberts 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.”

Citing Marbury v. Madison (1803), Roberts wrote, “Chief Justice Marshall famously wrote that it is ‘the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.’” But, citing Vieth v. Jubelirer (2004), Roberts added, sometimes “the law is that the judicial department has no business entertaining the claim of unlawfulness—because the question is entrusted to one of the political branches or involves no judicially enforceable rights.”

Such political questions cannot be decided by the courts because, among other things, they lack “judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving [them],” he wrote, citing Baker v. Carr (1962).

States remain free to address the issue of gerrymandering through state constitutional amendments, legislation, and independent commissions, he added, noting that Congress, too, could take action.

Justice Kagan wrote a passionate dissenting opinion.

“For the first time in this Nation’s history, the majority declares that it can do nothing about an acknowledged constitutional violation because it has searched high and low and cannot find a workable legal standard to apply,” Kagan wrote.

“The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the court’s role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections.”

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