The Supreme Court has brought an unfortunate end to the years-long fight to end extreme partisan gerrymandering. On Thursday, the court ruled that federal courts have no role to play in disputes over maps that were drawn on a purely partisan basis.
The ruling is a setback for democracy, undoing a strong, recent string of victories by voters in trial courts around the nation. By refusing to let the federal judiciary tackle this critical issue, the court has set the stage for more attempts at extreme gerrymandering and raised the importance of enacting other reforms. Chief among them is H.R. 1, which was passed by the House in March but is being blocked in the Senate. It would ban partisan gerrymandering and require independent commissions to draw congressional lines in every state.
In the Supreme Court’s 5-4 opinion in the cases out of North Carolina and Maryland, Chief Justice John Roberts explained that the federal courts cannot hear partisan gerrymandering cases because there are no “discernable and manageable standards” with which to identify when these gerrymanders are unconstitutional.
Justice Elena Kagan’s dissent vehemently counters this notion. Opining that the majority’s “complacency has no cause,” Kagan points to the many ways that courts can tackle the issue. The majority dismissed these options, determining that the issue presents “political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.”
By barring the federal courts’ oversight of partisan gerrymandering, the Supreme Court has made it harder to fight for fair maps. Voters in extremely gerrymandered states like North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Maryland will once again be forced to use unconstitutional maps for their upcoming elections. The longer-term and even graver threat is extreme partisan gerrymandering running rampant when the next round of redistricting starts in 2021.
Although federal litigation is no longer a viable route toward fair maps, other opportunities exist. State courts might see an uptick in gerrymandering cases. In 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down an extreme partisan gerrymander as a violation of its state constitution.
Meanwhile, citizens and state lawmakers can join forces to pass legislative reforms ahead of the next round of redistricting. Public support for these reforms is strong. In 2018, Democrats and Republicans alike voted to pass redistricting reforms in five states. And this year, the Virginia and New Hampshire legislatures passed bills to reform their own map-drawing processes. More states should follow suit in 2020, with time remaining for many to add public participation, transparency, and improved map-making criteria to their redistricting processes.