‘What the appellees and dissent seek is an unprecedented expansion of judicial power…’
(Ben Sellers, Liberty Headlines) In a pair of cases challenging largely left-wing efforts to subvert state legislatures’ ability to establish their own voting districts, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the courts had no authority to force partisan maps to be redrawn.
“No one can accuse this Court of having a crabbed view of the reach of its competence,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts, delivering the majority opinion. “But we have no commission to allocate political power and influence in the absence of a constitutional directive or legal standards to guide us in the exercise of such authority.”
The decision remanded two cases back to the lower courts with the charge to dismiss due to lack of jurisdiction: Rucho v. Common Cause, an appeal to a federal court ruling that forced North Carolina‘s GOP-led legislature to redraw its lines making the map more favorable to their opponents; and Lamone v. Benisek, in which Republicans in Maryland challenged the Democratic legislature over a lost seat.
The court’s conservative majority not only affirmed the role of duly-elected representatives to make redistricting decisions, but it also delivered a stinging rebuke to those attempting increasingly to use the courts for their own partisan, political purposes.
“What the appellees and dissent seek is an unprecedented expansion of judicial power,” Roberts wrote.
In a 2017 ruling, Cooper v. Harris, also from North Carolina, the court struck down race-based gerrymandering as a violation of the Voting Rights Act.
But despite repeated efforts to get the court to do so over the past 45 years, Roberts said it has never once ruled a a partisan gerrymander to be unconstitutional.
Doing so would establish an alarming precedent for the court, already criticized for having lost its objectivity as politically motivated forces continue to pressure it to be the final authority on divisive issues—including elections themselves.
“The expansion of judicial authority would not be into just any area of controversy, but into one of the most intensely partisan aspects of American political life,” Roberts said.
“That intervention would be unlimited in scope and duration—it would recur over and over again around the country with each new round of districting, for state as well as federal representatives,” he said.
In tackling the question of fairness, Roberts expressed skepticism that any courtroom was more fit than any legislative chamber to make those determinations.
Citing the late Justice Antonin Scalia in a previous decision that attempted to tackle a judicial standard of “fairness,” Roberts wrote, “The initial difficulty in settling on a ‘clear, manageable and politically neutral’ test for fairness is that it is not even clear what fairness looks like in this context. There is a large measure of ‘unfairness’ in any winner-take-all system.”
That is why the Constitution specifically vested the power to those who were elected and could be held politically accountable, he added.
“Even the most sophisticated districting maps cannot reliably account for some of the reasons voters prefer one candidate over another, or why their preferences may change,” noted Roberts.
“Voters elect individual candidates in individual districts, and their selections depend on the issues that matter to them, the quality of the candidates, the tone of the candidates’ campaigns, the performance of an incumbent, national events or local issues that drive voter turn-out, and other considerations.”
It was not immediately clear what the implications might be for other states, such as Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Virginia, where, prior to the 2018 elections, the lower federal courts already had mandated that legislative maps be redrawn due to alleged partisan influence.
The court previously had punted on challenges to lower court decisions from Wisconsin and Virginia, saying that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the cases. It had recently put on hold the cases pending in Ohio and Michigan.
Thursday’s landmark decision determined that the states themselves must decide what standards to follow, which also left open the possibility of judicial activism at the state level rather than the federal level.
Joined by the court’s other liberal members, Justice Elena Kagan said in her dissenting opinion that by choosing not to impose its own activist demands on state legislatures, the court was effectively breaking precedent.
“For the first time ever, this Court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities,” she began, accusing the recent gerrymandering efforts of having “debased and dishonored our democracy.”
Gerrymandering practices, originally named after a Democratic governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry, have been in existence since at least 1812.
The challenges to the practice picked up momentum after a coalition of leftist politicians and investors established the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, led by former Attorney General Eric Holder, which has been at the forefront of many of the “Sue till Blue” legal challenges targeting red states.
Additional reporting drawn from the Los Angeles Times contributed to this piece.