Published: Tue, June 20, 2017
Science | By Tyler Owen

Supreme Court to hear partisan gerrymandering case

Supreme Court to hear partisan gerrymandering case

Attorneys for Whitford and other 11 voters challenging Wisconsin's district lines said the case could have nationwide effect.

It's the high court's first case on what's known as partisan gerrymandering in more than a decade.

Twelve Republican-dominated states are supporting Wisconsin in its defense of the 2011 redistricting plan.

The case, Gill v. Whitford, comes to the court after a panel of three federal judges ruled 2-1 previous year that state lawmakers unconstitutionally drew the boundaries of state Assembly districts to benefit Republicans in 2011. The court also put on hold any redrawing of maps while the case is pending.

It comes at a time when the relatively obscure subject of reapportionment has taken on new significance, with many blaming the drawing of safely partisan seats for a polarized and gridlocked Congress. Those districts were drawn by the Republican state legislature in Wisconsin, and packed Democrats into a smaller number of districts to maximize Republican odds. They now have their largest majorities in the state House and Senate in decades.

They urged the court to overturn the lower-court ruling and throw out the claim on the grounds that redistricting is a political process, not a legal one.

A panel of three federal judges previously ruled that the maps unconstitutionally harmed Democrats because districts were drawn in a way that unfairly benefited Republicans.

Those maps, drawn mainly in secret by Republican lawmakers, had achieved one of the clearest cases in modern political history of achieving a lasting advantage for Republican candidates, even though the state's voters are about evenly divided in their affiliation with the two major parties. In 2014, Republicans won 52 percent of the vote and increased their state assembly majority to 63 seats.

The team working on behalf of the Democratic voters contends that it has found a way to measure unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders created to give a "large and durable" advantage in elections to pone party - a measure that the Supreme Court has said was lacking in previous cases contending a partisan gerrymander. As Yale Law School dean Heather Gerken noted in a Vox piece following the initial district court decision, a gap above that amount indicates that the disadvantaged party "would have nearly no chance of taking control of the legislature during the 10-year districting cycle".

The nation's highest court on Monday said it will hear arguments in the case.

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Justice Anthony M. Kennedy was in the middle.

"The decision in this case will likely set the path for redistricting in 2020 and beyond".

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"No matter which side of the aisle you're on, we should all be able to agree on one thing: as voters in a democracy we should have the right to freely choose our representatives rather than endure a system where politicians manipulate our district lines, dilute our votes, and choose their own constituents", Johnson said. Surplus and lost votes are considered wasted votes.

The Wisconsin court was not so definitive.

Walker spokesman Tom Evenson says the Republican governor "is confident Wisconsin's redistricting process is constitutional and is pleased to see the Supreme Court take the case".

The state contends that while Wisconsin is a purple state in national elections, its geography favors Republicans in legislative elections. They argued that Democratic voters were spread so thinly across the state that it was impossible for Democratic legislative candidates to be elected and achieve a majority.

Sachin Chheda, director of the Fair Elections Project, which organized and launched the lawsuit: "We've already had two federal courts declare the map unconstitutional in part or whole". Both diluted the votes of Democrats statewide, the voters say.

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987.

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