In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that federal courts are not the appropriate venue to resolve allegations of partisan gerrymandering — a decision advocates for fair elections warned could bolster partisan manipulating of voting districts.
The conservative justices on the high court remanded cases from Maryland and North Carolina to the lower courts and instructed those courts to dismiss the complaints of partisan gerrymandering.
“Excessive partisanship in districting leads to results that reasonably seem unjust,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote . “But the fact that such gerrymandering is ‘incompatible with democratic principles’ ... does not mean that the solution lies with the federal judiciary. We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.”
The Maryland case concerned complaints Republicans were disadvantaged through partisan gerrymandering; while the North Carolina case made a similar allegation on behalf of Democrats.
The attorney for a group of Maryland Republicans is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to end the practice of drawing sharply partisan congressional districts, but some justices seem reluctant to venture into an area that has long been the domain of states.
Roberts argued the appropriate venue for fixing gerrymandering is the legislative branch of government, writing that “numerous” states are “restricting partisan considerations in districting through legislation.”
“One way they are doing so is by placing power to draw electoral districts in the hands of independent commissions,” the chief justice wrote.
Roberts also referenced legislation written by Democratic U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes of Baltimore that would require states to create 15-member independent commissions to draw congressional districts.
“We express no view on any of these pending proposals,” Roberts wrote. “We simply note that the avenue for reform established by the Framers, and used by Congress in the past, remains open.”
Advocates for fair elections joined the court’s more progressive wing in objecting to the ruling.
Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote the dissent, and said the ruling marked the first time in American history the high court refused “to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities.”
“The partisan gerrymanders here debased and dishonored our democracy, turning upside-down the core American idea that all governmental power derives from the people,” Kagan wrote. “These gerrymanders enabled politicians to entrench themselves in office as against voters’ preferences. They promoted partisanship above respect for the popular will. They encouraged a politics of polarization and dysfunction. If left unchecked, gerrymanders like the ones here may irreparably damage our system of government. And checking them is not beyond the courts.”
Kagan referenced former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer of southern Maryland, both Democrats, as engineering a “voter-proof” map that entrenched members of their party in office.
“O’Malley led the process,” Kagan wrote. “He appointed a redistricting committee to help redraw the map, and asked Congressman Steny Hoyer, who has described himself as a ‘serial gerrymanderer’ to advise the committee.”
The Maryland case centered on the 6th congressional district, which stretches from the liberal Washington suburbs of Montgomery County to conservative western Maryland. The 6th was once a GOP stronghold; conservative Republican Roscoe Bartlett represented it for 20 years.
Democrats in Annapolis redrew the boundaries after the 2010 census to turn the district from red to blue, and Democrat John Delaney defeated Bartlett by 20 percentage points in the next election.
Last November, a three-judge federal court panel in Baltimore ruled that the state unconstitutionally drew the boundaries to benefit Democrats, and banned the map from being used in future elections. Under the Democrats’ plan, the panel said, the district retained “only one-half of its original population (specifically, the residents of Garrett, Allegany, and Washington counties, as well as roughly half the population of Frederick County).” The redrawn district’s boundaries removed the other half — some 360,000 residents.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat, appealed the decision the Supreme Court, arguing states need guidance on how to limit gerrymandering.
“This is a sad day for our democracy. We urged the Supreme Court to adopt a nationwide standard that would prevent extreme partisan gerrymandering,” Frosh said in a statement. “The decision today instead prevents voters everywhere from challenging in federal court any redistricting map as excessively partisan.”
The Maryland case was brought by seven Republican plaintiffs. They argued their influence in the district was diluted in violation of their First Amendment rights.
Jerry DeWolf, chairman of the Washington County Republican Central Committee and one of the plaintiffs, expressed disappointment in the Supreme Court ruling.
But, he said, the decision “solidifies the principle that our government, including our judiciary has its limits.”
“At heart of this matter, the majority of the Supreme Court felt that this issue was even too much for them, and they didn’t want elections to ultimately have to be decided by the courts,” DeWolf said.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has made attacking “gerrymandering” one of his signature issues, calling it “one of the biggest problems we have in America.”
“Today’s ruling was terribly disappointing to all who believe in fair elections,” said Hogan, a Republican, in a statement. “I pledge to vigorously continue this fight, both in Maryland and across our nation.”
He vowed to once again “introduce redistricting reform legislation in Maryland to put the drawing of districts in the hands of a balanced, fair, and nonpartisan commission — instead of partisan politicians.”
In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1, Maryland’s eight-member U.S. House delegation was split 4-4 in 2000. It now has seven Democrats and one Republican.
Joanne Antoine, of the government-watchdog organization Common Cause, said her organization would join Hogan to push for a legislative fix to partisan gerrymandering in Maryland.
“This is definitely a blow, but not a fatal blow,” Antoine said of the ruling. “It shows us the Supreme Court is out of touch with the American people. People know a democracy works best when every voice is heard and every vote is counted.”
She said she hoped Democrats and Republicans alike would work to draw Maryland’s maps in a fairer way after the 2020 census.
“We believe the best way forward is with an independent redistricting commission,” Antoine said. “We’re hoping everyone regardless of party will work with us to establish the commission.”
Leading Maryland Democrats have declined to embrace Hogan’s proposed gerrymandering fix of a neutral commission to redraw the lines. They argue doing so would amount to unilateral disarmament, since many states are gerrymandered in favor of Republicans.
Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Calvert County Democrat, said Thursday the matter requires a “national solution.”
“The Supreme Court ruling only strengthens the need for Congress and the president to work together to create a set of rules across the country, and I renew our call on Congress to present a set of rules and for the president to sign it,” Miller said in a statement.
Miller said he hoped the state could put the issue “to rest and focus on the many pressing issues facing all Marylanders."
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House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, said delegates are “disappointed that the Supreme Court didn’t offer a national solution to what is clearly a national problem.”
In March, a commission appointed by Hogan proposed a new map for the 6th District that would add population from Frederick County to the district, while moving voters from Montgomery County to the 8th District. The changes — which the Democrat-controlled General Assembly has not acted on — would affect only those two of Maryland's eight districts.
The 8th District seat is now held by Democrat David Trone, who filed a motion last year disagreeing with the lower court’s ruling. Like Miller, he said, gerrymandering needs a national solution by Congress.
The Maryland case was argued in March on the same day as a North Carolina redistricting suit and the Supreme Court ruling addressed both cases. In North Carolina, Democrats hold only three of 13 congressional districts in a state that tends to have closely decided statewide elections.