By DAVID A. LIEB
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling Thursday rejecting partisan gerrymandering claims in North Carolina and Maryland will effectively end similar federal lawsuits in several states. But it isn’t likely to stop other cases challenging congressional or state legislative districts on different grounds or in different venues.
The high court’s 5-4 majority ruling said federal courts have no role in trying to resolve what it described as “political questions” — specifically, whether voters’ rights are infringed when politicians of one party manipulate district lines to make it easier for them to win elections.
Although shutting the door to political gerrymandering claims in federal court, the Supreme Court nonetheless affirmed its authority to consider lawsuits alleging racial gerrymandering. It also noted that state courts can continue to handle partisan gerrymandering claims under their own constitutions and laws.
Here are some of the cases affected by the Supreme Court’s ruling, as well as states where litigation over redistricting is likely to continue.
PARTISAN GERRYMANDING CASES:
A new federal trial had been scheduled to begin July 15 on a partisan gerrymandering lawsuit involving the state Assembly. The U.S. Supreme Court in June 2018 overturned a November 2016 lower court ruling that had struck down Wisconsin’s state Assembly districts as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. The lower court had said the map adopted in 2011 by the Republican-led Legislature and Republican governor violated Democratic voters’ rights to representation by packing Democrats into some districts and spreading them among others, thus diluting their voting power.
The U.S. Supreme Court said in 2018 that the plaintiffs had failed to prove they had the right to sue on a statewide basis. It sent the case back to the lower court for plaintiffs to attempt to prove that their personal voting rights were infringed by the way specific districts were drawn. The ruling Thursday means that case likely will be dismissed.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday overturned a lower court ruling that said the Republican-led state legislature engaged in unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering when it redrew congressional districts to its advantage in 2016. (Lawmakers were redrawing the districts in response to a previous court ruling that some 2011 districts were an unconstitutional racial gerrymander). The high court ordered the lower court to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction.
Last November, the state Democratic Party and other plaintiffs filed a new lawsuit in state court contending the state’s House and Senate districts are partisan gerrymanders that disadvantage Democratic voters in violation of the state constitution. A trial is scheduled to begin July 15.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday overturned a lower court ruling that said western Maryland’s 6th Congressional District is an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander that diluted the voting power of Republicans. The district had been held by a 20-year Republican incumbent, but the Democratic governor and Democratic-controlled Legislature redrew it in 2011 to extend into suburban Washington, D.C. That added tens of thousands of Democratic voters while dropping Republican voters. Democrats have won the district in each election since then. The high court directed the lower court to dismiss the lawsuit for lack of jurisdiction.
A federal court panel had ruled April 25 that Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature and GOP governor had unconstitutionally diluted the power of Democratic voters when drawing congressional and state legislative districts in 2011. The court panel had given the GOP-led Legislature and new Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer until Aug. 1 to enact new maps to be used in the 2020 elections for at least nine of the 14 congressional districts and at least 25 of the 148 state legislative districts. But the U.S. Supreme Court on May 24 put a hold on that order; its ruling Thursday means the case likely will be dismissed.
Voters in 2018 approved a constitutional amendment that will shift the responsibility for redistricting to an independent commission starting after the 2020 census.
A federal court panel had ruled May 3 that Ohio’s congressional districts are an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. The court said the maps were drawn by the Republican-led Legislature and GOP governor in 2011 to disadvantage Democratic voters by packing lots of them into four districts and scattering the rest among the other 12 districts. The court had ordered lawmakers to redraw congressional districts for the 2020 elections by June 14. But the U.S. Supreme Court on May 24 put a hold on that order; its ruling Thursday means the case likely will be dismissed.
Voters in 2018 approved a constitutional amendment that, starting after the 2020 census, will require a bipartisan vote of legislators or special commissioners to enact congressional districts that would remain in effect for a full 10 years. If lawmakers don’t reach a bipartisan threshold, then new districts could only last for four years.
RACIAL GERRYMANDERING CASES
A trial is scheduled for Nov. 4 on a federal lawsuit alleging the U.S. House maps approved in 2011 by the state’s Republican-led Legislature and GOP governor illegally limit the voting influence of black residents. The lawsuit filed by eight African American voters is backed by a national Democratic redistricting group. A judge ruled in March that if the districts are eventually ruled unconstitutional, the state cannot be forced to redraw them for the 2020 elections because the plaintiffs waited too long before filing their lawsuit in 2018.
A federal lawsuit filed in June 2018 alleges that a U.S. House district was redrawn in 2011 by the state’s Republican-led Legislature and GOP governor to illegally limit the voting influence of black residents. The lawsuit by six African American voters is backed by a national Democratic redistricting group. No trial date has been set.
A federal lawsuit filed in June 2018 alleges the U.S. House maps approved in 2011 illegally limit the voting influence of black residents by packing a large number into one majority-minority district and spreading other black voters out among multiple districts. Republicans controlled both legislative chambers and the governor’s office at the time the redistricting plan was approved during a special legislative session. The lawsuit by 11 African American voters is backed by a national Democratic redistricting group. A judge denied the state’s motion to dismiss on May 31. No trial date has been set.
A federal judge ruled in February that one of Mississippi’s 52 state Senate districts violated federal law because it didn’t give black voters an equal opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice. To comply with a court order, the Republican-led Legislature in March redrew the district to increase the black voting-age population while reducing it in an adjacent district that still also has a majority of black residents.
The governor and secretary of state, who are both Republicans, have asked the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the district judge’s ruling. The appeals court’s decision will determine whether the two redrawn districts will be used in this year’s elections.
A federal court ruled in 2016 that 28 state legislative districts were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. The legislature redrew the districts the next year, and federal judges in early 2018 required additional changes. Last November, a state judicial panel struck down four of those redrawn House districts, ruling that it wasn’t necessary to change them to comply with the earlier rulings. The legislature gave final approval this past Monday to a revision of those districts.
The U.S. and state House maps enacted in 2011 by the Republican governor and GOP-led Legislature were tossed out in 2012 by a federal court, which produced new interim maps.
Those maps were permanently adopted by the Legislature and governor the following year. But in 2017, the federal court ruled that some districts were racially gerrymandered to weaken the electoral power of growing minority populations.
The U.S. Supreme Court largely overturned that decision in June 2018, striking down only one state House district in Fort Worth. After the Legislature failed to redraw the district, a federal court panel on May 28 ordered changes to the district, as well as to several adjoining districts.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 17 that Virginia’s Republican-led House did not have legal standing to appeal a ruling striking down some House districts as unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. A lower court ruled in June 2018 that the GOP-led legislature in 2011 had packed black voters into certain districts so that surrounding ones would have more white and Republican voters.
In January, the federal court panel adopted a plan to redraw 26 legislative districts — including the 11 at issue in the lawsuit and others adjacent to them — that could shift some districts toward Democrats in this year’s elections. Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring decided not to appeal the case. The Supreme Court said the House could not act on its own to try to represent the state in an appeal.
The General Assembly in February approved a constitutional amendment that would create a 16-member commission of lawmakers and citizens to draw congressional and state legislative districts after the 2020 census. The measure must be approved again next year by lawmakers for it to go on the statewide ballot.
PRISON GERRYMANDERING CASE
A federal lawsuit filed in June 2018 by the NAACP alleges unconstitutional prison gerrymandering in the drawing of state House and Senate districts. It challenges the state’s decision to count prisoners as residents of the district where they are incarcerated instead of their home districts.
The lawsuit says prisoners are disproportionately black and Latino and from urban areas, but they are often placed in prisons in rural areas that otherwise are overwhelmingly white. The districts were drawn in 2011 by a bipartisan commission. The state has appealed a lower court decision refusing to dismiss the case. No trial date has been set.