On June 27, 2019, the Supreme Court decided Rucho v. Common Cause, a highly-anticipated case stemming from legal challenges to the purported partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts in Maryland and North Carolina.
In a 5-4 ruling, the Court held that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts. Consequently, gerrymandering can only be addressed or resolved through action from Congress or individual states, and the drawing of highly partisan legislative districts, which have increasingly raised political ire in recent years, can no longer be challenged in the courts solely on political grounds.
Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing electoral district boundaries in a way that gives one party a distinct advantage over its rivals. Gerrymandering is by no means a new phenomenon – its roots trace back to the first US congressional elections. In recent years, however, both political parties have taken advantage of control over various state legislatures to craft electoral maps strengthening their opportunity for political success in future years. In the Rucho case, the districts at issue were the most recently-drawn congressional boundaries in the states of North Carolina and Maryland. In North Carolina, litigants challenged the legitimacy of Republican-drawn districts that disadvantaged Democrat prospects in federal elections. Similarly, in Maryland, litigants objected to the imbalance of congressional lines drawn by state Democrats to the disadvantage of Republicans.
Despite the balanced posture of the case, the Court’s majority leaned on precedent and the inherently political question before it when crafting its opinion. According to the majority, there is longstanding precedent recognizing the power of state legislatures to draw electoral districts – an inherently political task. As such, in his majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts argued that partisanship is allowed to play a role in the drawing of congressional districts – indeed this was the Founders’ intent. In turn, the Court asserted that any attempt by courts to interject themselves into the process of weighing levels of partisanship in gerrymandering cases would inherently mean judges would be arbitrarily deciding how much partisanship is too much rather than resolving such disputes based upon clear, manageable and politically-neutral standards and limited and precise rationales.
The rulings of the lower courts in North Carolina and Maryland, grounded in rubrics that the Court viewed as non-justiciable, were thus vacated. It is noteworthy that the majority distinguished partisan gerrymandering from gerrymandering that involves population inequality or racial discrimination – both of which the Court has previously ruled as unconstitutional. Ultimately, any partisan gerrymandering disputes can only be resolved politically through state legislation, state constitutional amendments, or Congress.
While the Court’s opinion expressed frustration over the excessive partisanship driving redistricting in the current political environment, the majority found that the judiciary is simply not the proper governmental branch to find solutions to the political issue of partisan gerrymandering. Moving forward, Rucho puts the ball firmly in the courts of the people’s elected legislators to address the question of partisan gerrymandering. Some states — Florida, Michigan, and Colorado, e.g. – have passed amendments to their state constitutions limiting the practice. Others like Delaware and Iowa have passed laws through their state legislatures prohibiting favoritism in redistricting. Congress also now has the opportunity to address the issue through legislative means.
Dentons will continue to monitor these efforts moving forward and provide insight on how such efforts will impact future elections at the federal, state and local levels around the country.