Political gerrymandering gets its day in the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court will hear gerrymandering cases brought by Democrats -- and one brought by Republicans

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published March 28, 2018 11:34AM (EDT)

 (Getty/Phillip Nelson)
(Getty/Phillip Nelson)

The Supreme Court is preparing to hear a case involving partisan gerrymandering, the second one to come before it in less than a year.

The current case involves Maryland and, unlike those which came before it, involves claims by Republicans against Democrats, according to CNN. In the Maryland case, a group of Republican voters is accusing former Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley of working with state Democrats to redraw congressional district lines to work to the disadvantage of Republican incumbent Rep. Roscoe Bartlett. Republicans argue that the redrawn district lines constitute an infringement of the rights of residents of Maryland's 6th congressional district.

"What happened in Maryland's Sixth District is a clear violation of the First Amendment, which forbids states from disfavoring citizens on the basis of their political views," the Republicans argue in court papers.

By contrast, lawyers representing the State of Maryland argue that the new congressional district map is legal because it was "legislatively enacted, petitioned to referendum, and approved by a majority of voters." They also claim that if district boundaries were overturned, it would effectively jeopardize the status of all maps drawn with "any partisan motive" by lawmakers.

Although the potentially culpable parties are different, the Maryland case is otherwise quite similar to a case heard by the Supreme Court last year about Wisconsin. In that case, Wisconsin Republicans were accused of redrawing district maps for its state legislature in such a way that they effectively nullified the ability of thousands of Democrats to elect the candidate of their choosing, according to NBC News. A panel of three federal judges struck down those maps as unconstitutional, agreeing with the argument that they violated not only the First Amendment but also the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection. The judges' decision declared that the Wisconsin map "was designed to make it more difficult for Democrats, compared to Republicans, to translate their votes into seats."

They added, "It is clear that the drafters got what they intended to get."

Although the Supreme Court has yet to rule on the Wisconsin case, another judge issued an important ruling on a separate election-related judicial controversy facing the Midwestern state. Republican Gov. Scott Walker was rebuffed in his effort to delay special elections to fill vacant seats in the state legislature — one in the House of Representatives, the other in the Senate — on the grounds that new elections shouldn't be held until November. This violated a state law that required special elections to be held as quickly as possible before the second Tuesday in May of an election year.

While the ruling on Walker's efforts was important, the potential impact of a Supreme Court ruling on partisan gerrymandering could be nothing short of revolutionary. The practice of redrawing congressional district maps to favor one party over another goes back centuries in the United States (it was named after Vice President Elbridge Gerry, who served from 1813 to 1814). More recently, it has allowed Republicans to maintain control over the House of Representatives in a way that many critics have claimed is undemocratic: In the 2012 elections, for example, Republicans maintained control of the House of Representatives despite losing the popular vote in those races by more than 1 million votes. Even though Democrats are expected to have a major advantage over Republicans in the upcoming 2018 elections, some experts believe they would need to win the popular vote by a margin they haven't achieved in decades in order to retake control of the House of Representatives.

If the Supreme Court ruled that partisan gerrymandering was unconstitutional, they would effectively make it impossible for either party to rig congressional races in such a way that they could maintain control of a legislative chamber without the popular vote. Some state Supreme Courts have already made this argument, such as Pennsylvania's Supreme Court, when it un-gerrymandered the federal congressional districts in that state. While the federal Supreme Court has issued rulings that limit the use of race in drawing political districts, however, it remains to be seen whether they'd be willing to go an extra step and do the same thing when it comes to partisan discrimination.

Other legal challenges to partisan gerrymandering have occurred in North Carolina and Texas.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Gerrymandering Maryland North Carolina Pennsylvania Supreme Court Texas Wisconsin