CourtsNews

Supreme Court sidesteps decision on partisan gerrymandering

Author: Robert Barnes, The Washington Post - June 18, 2018 - Updated: June 18, 2018

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The Supreme Court in Washington is seen at sunset. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sidestepped a decision on when partisan gerrymandering of electoral districts goes too far, ruling against the challengers of a Republican-drawn map in Wisconsin and a Democratic redistricting in Maryland.

The decisions in the separate cases once again puts off a decision on when courts can find that partisan efforts to keep parties in power goes so far as to be unconstitutional.

It was a technical resolution of what has seemed to hold the promise of being a landmark decision about whether extreme efforts to give one party advantage over another were unconstitutional.

> RELATED: Colorado redistricting resolutions head to the ballot

While the court routinely polices the drawing of electoral maps to combat racial gerrymandering, it has never found that partisan efforts went too far. It has never settled on a test that judges could use to determine how much politics was too much.

There is a pending challenge of North Carolina’s redistricting efforts that could provide another case for the justices to consider the issue.

In the Wisconsin case, the court said that the challenges must be brought district by district, with voters in each proving that their rights had been violated. The challengers asked the court to consider the state map as a whole.

The Maryland case was still at a preliminary stage, and the court in an unsigned opinion said the lower court had not been wrong when it decided not to make the state redraw the maps in time for the 2018 election.

“Today’s decision is yet another delay in providing voters with the power they deserve in our democracy,” said Chris Carson, president of the League of Women Voters of the United States. “Partisan gerrymandering is distorting and undermining our representative democracy, giving politicians the power to choose their voters, instead of giving voters the power to choose their politicians. We are disappointed that the Court failed to set a standard when it comes to partisan gerrymandering.”

Maryland Democratic leaders set out in 2011 to redraw the state’s congressional districts to boost the likelihood that the party’s 6-to-2 edge in the delegation became 7 to 1.

Democratic former governor Martin O’Malley was frank about the effort in a deposition in the case.

“As the elected governor, I did my duty within the metes and bounds” of Maryland law that set up redistricting as a partisan exercise, O’Malley said. He added that if the reconfigured district “would be more likely to elect a Democrat than a Republican, yes, this was clearly my intent.”

O’Malley also now says he believes redistricting should be done by an independent commission rather than by legislators.

The Democrats targeted longtime Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, who had been reelected in 2010 by a 28-percentage-point margin, but lost to a Democrat in the redrawn district in 2012 by 21 points.

In Colorado, two resolutions that could help create commissions to draw political boundaries for the Colorado legislature and the state’s members of Congress are headed to the statewide November ballot.

Currently the legislature and the governor’s office have a heavy hand in drawing the district boundaries every 10 years using the latest census data. It usually turns into a protracted political fight involving the courts. Ultimately the districts have come to favor incumbents and political parties, say critics.

The new commissions would focus on competitiveness, not gerrymandering to protect the party with a legislative majority or incumbents, proponents of the change argue.

Robert Barnes, The Washington Post