Supreme Court to Consider Constitutionality of Partisan Gerrymandering

June 21, 2017 - (3 min read)

If the deciding justice finds that there is no clear way to determine constitutionality — and thus no clear way to establish laws against the practice — then the issue will continue to affect politics for the foreseeable future.

In Gill v. Whitford the Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether and when it is possible to bring a claim that partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional.

Gerrymandering is the practice of manipulating electoral voting district boundaries to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group.

While the Court has repeatedly struck down district maps that rely on racial gerrymandering, it has never ruled that maps drawn to secure partisan advantage are unconstitutional. In 2004, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy — who may be the deciding vote in Whitford — wrote a concurring opinion indicating that partisan gerrymandering could be unconstitutional.

In 2011, Wisconsin legislators redrew state assembly districts to reflect population changes recorded in the 2010 census. Map makers used a model designed to predict the likelihood that various proposed districts would elect a Republican. In the 2015 election, Republican candidates received less than 49 percent of the statewide vote and won seats in more than 60 percent of the state’s assembly districts, and in 2014, 52 percent of the vote yielded 63 seats for Republicans.

The challengers propose a standard for determining the influence of partisan gerrymandering in the district-drawing process. Drawn from a 2015 article written by a University of Chicago law professor and a lawyer for the challengers, the standard is based on “wasted votes” — votes in each district cast for a non-winning party’s candidate. By dividing the difference between the sums of each party’s wasted votes by the total number of votes cast, the proposed standard yields an efficiency gap.

The challengers argue that efficiency gaps over seven percent violate the Constitution. The efficiency gap in Wisconsin was 13.3 percent in 2012 and 9.6 percent in 2014, according to the proposed standard.

A panel of three federal judges ruled in favor of the challengers, finding that the map enacted by the Wisconsin legislature was a result of partisan gerrymandering and prohibited by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Veith v. Jubelirer (2004) is the last time the Court examined the issue of partisan gerrymandering. It failed to deliver a clear ruling on whether and when it is unconstitutional.

Four justices — then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia — wrote that courts should never review partisan gerrymandering claims because there is not a manageable process for determining when the role of politics in redistricting is impermissibly influential.

And four other justices — Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter and Stephen Breyer — opined that courts should be able to review partisan-gerrymandering claims.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, the deciding vote, agreed that the Court should not review the particular case at issue, but noted that he might consider a challenge to political gerrymandering in the future if there were “a workable standard” for determining its constitutionality.

Featured image from Getty Images.

lisa_soronen_new_125x150About the author: Lisa Soronen is the executive director of the State and Local Legal Center (SLLC), which files Supreme Court amicus curiae briefs on behalf of the Big Seven national organizations, including the National League of Cities, representing state and local governments. She is a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.