By Adam Liptak
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled against the challengers opposed to partisan gerrymandering, the practice in which the party that controls the state legislature draws voting maps to help elect its candidates.
The vote in two cases was 5 to 4, with the court’s more conservative members in the majority. The court appeared to close the door on such claims.
The drafters of the Constitution, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority, understood that politics would play a role in drawing election districts when they gave the task to state legislatures. Judges, the chief justice said, are not entitled to second-guess lawmakers’ judgments.
“We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” the chief justice wrote.
[Here’s what you need to know about gerrymandering.]
One case, from North Carolina, concerned a plan drawn by Republican state lawmakers in 2016 that included a criterion called “partisan advantage.”
The state’s congressional delegation, in a purple state in which neither party had a distinct edge, was at the time made up of 10 Republicans and three Democrats. A key goal, lawmakers said, was “to maintain the current partisan makeup of North Carolina’s congressional delegation.”
“I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats,” explained David Lewis, a Republican member of the General Assembly’s redistricting committee. “So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country.”
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“I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats,” he said, “because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”
The plan worked. In 2016, Republican congressional candidates won 53 percent of the statewide vote. But, as predicted, they again won in 10 of the 13 congressional districts, or 77 percent of them.
In 2018, the statewide vote was about evenly divided, but Democrats again secured only three seats.
The case, Rucho v. Common Cause, No. 18-422, was an appeal from a decision in August by a three-judge panel of a Federal District Court in North Carolina. The ruling found that Republican legislators there had violated the Constitution by drawing the districts to hurt the electoral chances of Democratic candidates.
The Maryland case, Lamone v. Benisek, No. 18-726, was brought by Republican voters who said Democratic state lawmakers had in 2011 redrawn a district to retaliate against citizens who supported its longtime incumbent, Representative Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Republican. That retaliation, the plaintiffs said, violated the First Amendment by diluting their voting power.
Mr. Bartlett had won his 2010 race by a margin of 28 percentage points. In 2012, he lost to Representative John Delaney, a Democrat, by a 21-point margin.
Last year, after the Supreme Court returned the case to the United States District Court in Maryland, a three-judge panel of that court ruled for the challengers, barred state officials from conducting further congressional elections using the 2011 maps and ordered them to draw new ones.
The Supreme Court addressed partisan gerrymandering last term, too, while Justice Anthony M. Kennedy was still on the court. Justice Kennedy, in his questions last term and in a 2004 concurring opinion, left the door open to the possibility that some kinds of political gamesmanship may be too extreme.
“If a state passed an enactment that declared ‘All future apportionment shall be drawn so as most to burden Party X’s rights to fair and effective representation, though still in accord with one-person, one-vote principles,’” he wrote in 2004, “we would surely conclude the Constitution had been violated.”
Last term’s cases, from Wisconsin and Maryland, ended inconclusively and seemed to invite fresh challenges, which arrived promptly. But the arrival of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh meant the challengers faced a different, more conservative court.
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