Supreme Court punts on two cases regarding partisan election dis - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Supreme Court punts on two cases regarding partisan election districts

Posted: Updated: Jun 18, 2018 12:49 PM
Protesters demonstrated outside the Supreme Court in March when the justices heard the second of two cases challenging the way state legislatures draw election maps to favor the party in power. Protesters demonstrated outside the Supreme Court in March when the justices heard the second of two cases challenging the way state legislatures draw election maps to favor the party in power.

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court sidestepped a potentially historic ruling Monday that would have blocked states from drawing election maps intended to help one political party dominate the other, but the issue may return in 2019.

The justices unanimously found procedural faults with challenges brought by Democratic voters in Wisconsin and Republicans in Maryland. That could open the door for a third case from North Carolina to reach the court next term.

In a case that was pending since early October, the justices said challengers to the design of 99 state Assembly districts in Wisconsin cannot tackle the entire map at once but must target their specific districts.

Rather than dismissing the case, they agreed to give the challengers another chance in lower courts. Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch would have dismissed the challenge outright.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the Wisconsin decision, said the case was flawed because it was about "group political interests, not individual legal rights."

"This court is not responsible for vindicating generalized partisan preferences," Roberts said. "The court's constitutionally prescribed role is to vindicate the individual rights of the people appearing before it."

In a concurring opinion, the court's four liberal justices laid out a road map for a challenge to reach the Supreme Court. They said challengers can offer more specific evidence of how they were "packed" into some districts and "cracked" among others. They said statewide claims can be based on the First Amendment's right of association - all in an effort to stop politicians from "degrading the nation's democracy."

"Courts - and in particular this court - will again be called on to redress extreme partisan gerrymanders," Justice Elena Kagan predicted. "I am hopeful we will then step up to our responsibility to vindicate the Constitution against a contrary law."

Roberts and Kagan appeared to recognize that a future decision could hinge on Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court's swing vote, who has been considering retirement. Each cited his views six times in their separate opinions.

Ironically, the Maryland case argued in March was based on the type of First Amendment claim Kagan suggested. But there, the court said challengers to congressional lines giving Democrats seven of eight seats did not merit a quick fix because they had waited six years to bring their claim. That case, too, can continue in lower courts.

The decisions won't have major implications for other states - including North Carolina, Texas, Ohio, Michigan and Virginia - where legislatures controlled by one party drew "gerrymandered" district lines. Nor will they require changes in district lines this year, but the potential remains for 2020, when state legislators will earn the right to draw the next decade's maps.

"While it's disappointing to see the court punt, the decisions aren't losses," said Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. "Both cases go on, and the justices will have the chance to finally say something about when gerrymandering is illegal next term, in a case out of North Carolina with overwhelming evidence of how gerrymandering quashes voters' voices."

N.C. case: Stumped in two cases on partisan election maps, Supreme Court could turn to North Carolina next term

Advantage: Republicans

Across the nation, hundreds of members of Congress and thousands of state legislators are elected in districts drawn to favor the party that controls state government. That has largely favored Republicans during the past decade, as the justices heard in October when confronted by Wisconsin's partisan artistry.

The Wisconsin map has left Republicans with 63 of 99 seats in the lower house of an otherwise politically balanced state. A federal district court ruled last year that the districts discriminated against Democratic voters "by impeding their ability to translate their votes into legislative seats." It demanded that the Legislature draw new district lines by this November, but the Supreme Court blocked that requirement while it considered the state's appeal.

Challengers to Wisconsin's lines told the justices in October that the GOP-drawn lines violated their constitutional right to equal protection by diluting the weight of their votes. Roberts did not address that question in sending the case back on procedural grounds.

During oral argument in March on the Maryland case, the court's liberal justices said Democrats clearly went too far when they redrew a congressional district won for two decades by a conservative Republican, who then lost in a landslide in 2012. They did it by moving tens of thousands of Republicans out of the 6th district, which borders West Virginia and western Pennsylvania, and replacing them with tens of thousands of Democrats from the wealthy suburbs of Washington.

At the time, Kennedy said the Maryland state Constitution would not be allowed to mandate that lawmakers favor one party over another, yet the state achieved the same goal in legislation. His view seemed to leave his vote in doubt.

North Carolina next?

Since the Wisconsin case was heard, courts in North Carolina and Pennsylvania have struck down Republican-drawn maps. The North Carolina decision was blocked while the Supreme Court cases continued. In Pennsylvania, a state court redrew the lines for 2018, and the justices refused to intervene.

Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said the North Carolina map "remains the most crystal clear example of why a rule creating limits on partisan gerrymandering is so necessary." That case, she noted, doesn't have the same procedural issues as the Wisconsin and Maryland cases.

Over the past few decades, computer software programs have vastly improved the art of line-drawing for partisan advantage. Republicans, in particular, seized on the process in 2011 after gaining nearly 700 seats in state legislatures two years earlier. That gave them control of both houses in 25 states.

The Supreme Court has ruled on multiple occasions that race cannot be a major factor in the way lines are drawn, but it has yet to set a standard for how much politics is too much.

The lines in some major states are so one-sided that Democrats would need a landslide in November to win control of the House of Representatives, a new report by the Brennan Center estimates. In Ohio, Michigan and North Carolina, where Republicans control a combined 31 of 43 seats in Congress, the report says Democrats would need to win the statewide vote to add any more House seats.

That isn't the case everywhere. Some legislatures are split between Republicans and Democrats, forcing compromise. Some states let independent or bipartisan commissions draw the lines. In others, courts have imposed them.

Two for two: First Amendment victory is Florida man's second at Supreme Court

Dress code: Supreme Court strikes down political dress code at polls in latest decision involving voting

Voter purger: Supreme Court says states can remove voters who skip elections, ignore warnings

Powered by Frankly
All content © Copyright 2000 - 2018 KFMB-TV. All Rights Reserved.
For more information on this site, please read our Privacy Policy, and Terms of Service, and Ad Choices.