This year, a Supreme Court stacked with conservative judges may finally decide the fate of political gerrymandering. The issue comes up to the Supreme Court again on Tuesday when judges will hear oral arguments involving redrawn district maps—one involving a Democrat-controlled legislature in Maryland, the other a Republican legislature in North Carolina.
If it feels like déjà vu, it’s because the issue has come before the high court before. Historically, the court has been reluctant to interfere with the ways state legislatures draw up voting districts—a task which falls to the party in power and is inherently political. As one might expect, majority parties tend to redraw state legislative and congressional district boundaries to allow themselves to keep power.
The fact that these maps are partisan isn’t the issue—at least, as the courts see it. It’s whether a map can be so partisan it actually violates the Constitution—and how a court could draw the line between extreme partisanship and, well, partisanship “lite.”
As NBC News reports, in both cases going before the higher court today, the maps have already been declared unconstitutional gerrymandering by lower courts.
In Maryland (Benisek v. Lamone), Democrats redrew a district map that resulted in the party taking over a seat that had been a Republican stronghold for 20 years.
And in North Carolina (Common Cause v. Rucho), a state that has been a wellspring for voting controversies, the state GOP redrew a district map that had previously been declared unconstitutional because it targeted black voters. The new map, revised in 2016, was designed to carve out favorable partisan boundaries, Republicans said.
In both instances, state lawmakers were clear about their intent in creating the maps: to consolidate or expand on their party’s power.
From NBC News:
One (N.C.) state representative, asked why the legislature wanted to preserve that ratio [of ten Congressional Republicans and three Democrats], joked, “because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with eleven Republicans and two Democrats.”
Legal experts think it’s unlikely that SCOTUS will punt on the issue this time around. As Talking Points Memo notes, procedural shortcomings in previous cases have been addressed, the facts being presented are clear, and the court has packaged the two separate cases together to “hear all the possible perspectives on what a judicially reasonable standard for determining a partisan gerrymandering might be.”
And with a presidential election and a Census on the horizon for 2020, the court will likely be eager to settle the question once and for all, in order to offer states guidance on how to shape their political maps.
Finally, with Justice Brett Kavanaugh sitting on the dais, the conservative majority on the high court has been consolidated and has shifted more towards the right. Given Kavanaugh’s non-interventionist approach, legal experts suspect the Supreme Court will decide that political maps need to be resolved by state legislatures, not courts—opening up the possibility of more blatant gerrymandering for the foreseeable future.
The Supreme Court will make its decision by late June.