In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled Thursday that partisan gerrymandering poses a political question not for the federal courts to decide.
Chief Justice John Roberts penned the majority opinion of the North Carolina partisan gerrymandering case, Rucho v. Common Cause, and cited centuries-old jurisprudence in Marbury v. Madison, in holding that the Court must stay within its bounds and not decide on a matter that is so tied with political parties.
“We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. “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.”
Roberts detailed that there is no clear standard to evaluate the harm partisan gerrymandering does to voters.
“None of the proposed 'tests' for evaluating partisan gerrymandering claims meets the need for a limited and precise standard that is judicially discernible and manageable,” the syllabus of the case reads.
Importantly, although the federal courts might not have a say, the Supreme Court noted that the U.S. Congress and states all have avenues to address partisan gerrymandering. For example, the Court noted that the Framers of the Constitution intended the Elections Clause of the U.S. Constitution to confer authority on Congress in addressing issues of drawing legislative district lines.
States also have the ability to pass constitutional amendments and legislation to combat partisan gerrymandering, such as creating an independent redistricting commission.
The Court's opinion also applies to the Maryland partisan gerrymandering case, Lamone v. Benisek.
The four judges who joined Roberts in his opinion were Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, traditionally known as the conservative members of the Court. And the dissent was authored by Justice Elena Kagan and joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, the liberal members of the Court.
The Supreme Court has directed for the North Carolina and the Maryland partisan gerrymandering cases to return to the lower courts with a directive to dismiss them, meaning they have no jurisdiction in the federal court system.
In regard to legal argumentation, Lamone v. Benisek challengers—in the Maryland case—relied upon the First Amendment. Those in Rucho v. Common Cause referred to the protections of the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and the Elections Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
A key distinction between Rucho and Lamone is the number of congressional districts challenged as unconstitutional. North Carolina’s congressional map was put into question, while only one congressional district in Maryland was in Lamone.
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Accordingly, challengers of the North Carolina congressional map referred to district-level harm in addition to that incurred on the state level, and Maryland residents claimed harms only on the district level.
This was not the first time the map challengers and defenders had found themselves before the Court.
In January 2018, North Carolina’s congressional map was found to be drawn unconstitutionally in favor of Republican voters. A three-judge panel for the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina held that the state legislature—controlled by Republicans—had violated non-Republican voters’ rights of the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause and the Elections Clause.
But because the Supreme Court already had agreed to hear two partisan gerrymandering cases during the 2017-2018 term, it granted a stay request on the federal district court’s order to redraw North Carolina’s congressional district map.
Once the Court’s decisions in the two cases were released in June 2018, litigants in Common Cause read the court opinions closely to know which arguments might be most advantageous in front of the Court.
When the case was brought back to the federal district court as Rucho v. Common Cause in March, the three-judge panel again ruled in favor of the map challengers. The court opinion was very similar to the one from January 2018 but included a lengthy section specifically about district-level harm, an issue the Supreme Court noted was lacking from the Whitford case.
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