Supreme Court squashes plan to obfuscate partisan mapping
“There was this real movement into state courts after 2018,” said Marina Jenkins, executive director of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, referring to Democrats’ success in challenging Pennsylvania’s GOP map in state court. “If anything, it’s just ensuring that those fights continue, and that we can continue to pursue a broader landscape of litigation.”
Wisconsin Democrats may be the outright winners of the decision. Liberals won a majority on their state’s Supreme Court for the first time in more than a decade earlier this year. They’re already planning to use it to expose what may be the most powerful GOP gerrymandering in the country. The theory of an independent state legislature threatened to upend those plans, so Democrats now have a clearer path to litigate those maps thanks to Tuesday’s ruling.
It also has a major impact on a long-running battle in Ohio, where the state Supreme Court has repeatedly thrown out GOP maps there as an illegal gerrymander. Ohio Republicans have asked the nation’s highest court to intervene on similar grounds, but the court has not yet acted on their request. Tuesday’s ruling means the battle will likely remain between the Legislature and the state Supreme Court, which has become more Republican-friendly in the past year.
Meanwhile, Democrats are seeking to overturn the lines drawn by the court in New York, where particularly aggressive Democratic gerrymandering could cost Republicans several seats. While this battle continues in state court, there is no immediate ruling that would give Democrats the green light to immediately ignore their state’s judiciary.
However, it will have little impact in North Carolina, the state in which it is located Moore v. Harper Originated. Republicans there, led by state House Speaker Tim Moore, asked the Supreme Court to block their state’s Democratic-controlled Supreme Court from getting into a fight over partisan gerrymandering. But while awaiting the final ruling, Republicans took control of the North Carolina Supreme Court, which overturned the previous court’s ruling. Republican lawmakers are expected to redraw the lines this summer, and they are expected to heavily favor their party.
“I have no confidence in North Carolina,” said former Rep. J. K. Butterfield (D.N.C.), who was previously a state Supreme Court justice, noting that the shifting partisan makeup of the state Supreme Court affects the final outcome. there. “I have no confidence that court will overturn the maps.”
Republicans agree. “This decision has no practical impact on the redistricting efforts already underway in North Carolina. We look forward to the North Carolina General Assembly drawing equitable lines,” Jack Bandol, spokesman for the House GOP campaign arm, said in a statement. “Represents the state of North Carolina at its best.”
Tuesday’s court decision appears to bless the power of independent redistricting commissions, which were the subject of a split 5-4 Supreme Court ruling less than a decade ago. Both parties have benefited from independent mapmakers in various states — but a world in which Democrats in California, for example, could shamelessly gerrymander, would have been disastrous for GOP representation on the West Coast.
GOP activists say the current judicial arms race began in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections when Democrats gained a majority on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and then successfully sued to overturn the Republican-drawn map.
The result: Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation went from five Democrats and 13 Republicans to 9 to 9. Democrats regained the House majority for the first time in eight years.
The Supreme Court bolstered Democrats’ strategy in 2019 when it ruled that federal courts had no role in policing partisan gerrymandering — but left the door open for states to do so.
For Republicans, it was a wake-up call. They have begun pouring millions into judicial races in key states like North Carolina. In states where judges are appointed, they have relied on GOP governors to tip the scales.
A few states have partisan gerrymandering lawsuits pending in state courts. Earlier this year, Republicans in New Mexico said the state’s congressional maps were rigged in favor of Democrats. A Democratic-controlled Legislature drafted a map that helped the incumbent representative. Gabe Vasquez (D.N.M.) ousts incumbent Republican Rep. Yvette Herrell from her district. Herrell has already made a comeback offer.
But a judge said in January that the state Supreme Court would be “deliberative” and not rush to a decision.
State Supreme Court hearings are also scheduled in Utah on July 11 and in Kentucky on September 19. Both issues deal with GOP-controlled maps, with Republicans sweeping all four of Utah’s congressional districts and all but one of Kentucky’s.
In the wake of Tuesday’s decision, Republicans were quick to point out that the Supreme Court does not give state courts unchecked authority over redistricting and other redistricting litigation.
“The questions raised in this area are complex and context-specific,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his opinion. “We hold only that state courts may not so exceed the ordinary limits of judicial review as to arrogate to themselves the power vested in state legislatures to regulate federal elections.”
Some court watchers say it’s a clear shot at state judiciaries not to get carried away.
“This is a positive first step toward reining in the recent overreach of state courts,” said Adam Kincaid, president of the National Republican Redistricting Fund.
Nicholas Wu contributed to this report.