In a decision hailed as a "major victory for voters," the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday upheld an Arizona ballot initiative, adopted by voters in 2000, which took redistricting power away from elected politicians and gave it to a nonpartisan commission.
The 5-4 decision (pdf), which saw Justice Anthony Kennedy serving as the swing vote, allows redistricting commissions to remain in place across the country and in turn works to curb the practice known as gerrymandering—the manipulation of electoral districts so as to favor one political party.
"The Supreme Court has resoundingly upheld the right of We the People to take redistricting out of secret backrooms run by politicians and into the public light of citizen-driven commissions."
—Kathay Feng, Common Cause
"This decision reaffirms the people’s authority to rein in self-dealing legislators," said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, which submitted an amicus brief in the case. "The Constitution is not a barrier to states who want to address the problem of partisan gerrymandering."
What's more, according to the Brennan Center, the ruling "also leaves intact dozens of other election laws enacted by ballot initiative, legislative referendum, or constitutional amendment." The center provided an interactive map detailing the kind of measures that were at risk.
"Today, voters win," declared Kathay Feng, national redistricting director for Common Cause, which also submitted a brief in support of the independent redistricting commission. "The Supreme Court has resoundingly upheld the right of We the People to take redistricting out of secret backrooms run by politicians and into the public light of citizen-driven commissions."
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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote the opinion for the majority. "The people of Arizona turned to the initiative to curb the practice of gerrymandering," she wrote, "and, thereby, to ensure that Members of Congress would have 'an habitual recollection of their dependence on the people'."
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She continued, quoting a 2005 gerrymandering case: "In so acting, Arizona voters sought to restore 'the core principle of republican government,' namely, 'that the voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around'."
"Today’s decision is a victory for representative democracy and a sharp rebuke to the Arizona legislators who sued to overturn the popular will of the state’s citizens in order to regain their ability to handpick their constituents and safeguard their seats through blatant political gerrymanders."
—J. Gerald Hebert, Campaign Legal Center
Or, as the ACLU put it: "In essence, [the ruling] says voters can keep the fox from guarding the henhouse."
The case, Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, challenged a state constitutional amendment adopted in 2000 by Arizona voters, which created a politically neutral commission drawing new boundaries for the state’s congressional districts every 10 years. Before the amendment, the state legislature, as in many states, had been responsible for setting and adjusting district lines.
The Commission drew district boundaries in 2001 and again in 2011. After the 2011 redistricting, however, the Republican-controlled state legislature sued the Commission, arguing that use of the Commission to draw maps violated the U.S. Constitution’s Elections Clause. As the Arizona Republic notes: "If the Republican-led Legislature had won, lawmakers might have drawn boundaries to favor the GOP."
The SCOTUS decision on Monday goes beyond Arizona and reaffirms maps drawn in other states through a similar process. California also has a redistricting commission that was set up during the past decade through ballot initiative.
"Today’s ruling is a big win for voters because it validates the power of citizens to use the ballot box to combat dysfunction," said Michael Li, counsel at the Brennan Center.
But the implications are even bigger than that, Li added. "By leaving in place important redistricting reforms in Arizona and California," he said, "the Supreme Court reaffirmed the principle that voters have the freedom under the Constitution to experiment with ways to make their democracy work better."
Indeed, "Today’s decision affirms Abraham Lincoln’s declaration that ours is a government of, by and for the people," said Common Cause president Miles Rapoport in a statement after the ruling. "The citizens of Arizona were justifiably outraged at the way politicians in their state legislature had manipulated the state’s political boundaries, so they created an independent commission to take charge of redistricting."
Looking to the future, Rapoport continued: "Now that our highest court has given their initiative its blessing, we’re hopeful that citizens and legislators alike in other states will push politics aside and create independent bodies to draw truly representative districts after the 2020 census."
Meanwhile, J. Gerald Hebert, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center, chastised the four dissenting justices who were "willing to deny voters a fair chance to choose their own representatives"—Chief Justice John Roberts, as well as Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito.
Hebert added: "Today’s decision is a victory for representative democracy and a sharp rebuke to the Arizona legislators who sued to overturn the popular will of the state’s citizens in order to regain their ability to handpick their constituents and safeguard their seats through blatant political gerrymanders. Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution guarantees that Members of Congress will be chosen 'by the People of the several States,' not that Members of Congress will handpick the constituents most likely to reelect them."