The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, said federal judges have no role in policing partisan redistricting, effectively removing the courts from the process and leaving controversial congressional maps in North Carolina and Maryland in place.
The opinion on gerrymandering, authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, stated that federal courts do not have jurisdiction to rule on political questions such as this. It is up to lawmakers to deal with such issues.
"We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts," Roberts wrote. "Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions."
The cases, Benisek v. Lamone and Rucho v. Common Cause, dealt with the mapping of congressional districts in Maryland and North Carolina, respectively, in ways that blatantly favored one party over another. Lower courts ruled that the redistricting was improper and ordered them to adopt new plans.
Now they will no longer have to, as the lower courts’ rulings were vacated by the Supreme Court’s ruling.
"No one can accuse this Court of having a crabbed view of the reach of its competence," Roberts concluded. "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."
Justice Elena Kagan strongly disagreed with the conservative majority.
"In giving such gerrymanders a pass from judicial review, the majority goes tragically wrong," she wrote in a dissenting opinion. "Is that how American democracy is supposed to work? I have yet to meet the person who thinks so."
The Maryland case involved 66,000 Republicans being moved out of the Sixth Congressional District and a net increase of 24,000 Democrats. What was once considered a solidly Republican district suddenly favored Democrats. Most of the people moved out of the Sixth District were moved to the Eighth District, which maintained a Democratic majority. The federal District Court found that this was done intentionally, and ruled that the redrawn map violated the First Amendment “by burdening both the plaintiffs’ representational rights and associational rights based on their party affiliation and voting history.”
In North Carolina, it was Republicans who benefited from partisan gerrymandering, which a federal district court held violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the First Amendment, and Article I of the Constitution.
Congressional districts will eventually be redrawn anyway, following the results of the 2020 census, which itself is the subject of another high-profile case centered on whether the Trump administration can include a question that asks whether people are U.S. citizens.
This is the second decision handed down by the court this term in gerrymandering cases. Earlier in June, the Court upheld a ruling against race-based gerrymandering in Virginia, when the found that the state’s House of Delegates did not have standing to challenge the lower court’s decision.