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Supreme Court Passes on 'Political' Gerrymandering Question

United States Supreme Court Building in Washington DC, USA.
By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

To the victor, go the spoils, as they say. And one of the spoils of being victorious in political elections is the ability to draw, or re-draw, geographical voting boundaries. Known as "gerrymandering," this practice is often used to break up voting districts of opponents while packing your own, in the hopes of ensuring future electoral victories. But how far can this process go?

Apparently, as far as the victors want to take it, according to the Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that gerrymandering is a "political" question, "beyond the reach of the federal courts."

Political Questions, and No Answers

The Supreme Court can't rule on every case. Beginning in the 1800s, the Court limited the scope of its own jurisdiction by declining to decide cases that involved a "political question." What exactly constitutes a political question, however, has been left up to debate. Normally, the Court will steer clear of cases that involve foreign policy matters, state government organization, or similar issues. Recently, the Court has said that the president's authority to terminate treaties, the House's authority to veto legislation, and the Senate's authority to try impeachments all constitute political questions.

Just last June, the Supreme Court sidestepped a definitive ruling in other gerrymandering cases, preferring to base its decisions on more technical grounds. This time around, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for a conservative majority, said the Court can't decide the question at all:

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. "[J]udicial action must be governed by standard, by rule," and must be "principled, rational, and based upon reasoned distinctions" found in the Constitution or laws. Judicial review of partisan gerrymandering does not meet those basic requirements.

Unjust Results, but No Ruling

"Excessive partisanship in districting leads to results that reasonably seem unjust," Roberts conceded. "But the fact that such gerrymandering is 'incompatible with democratic principles' ... does not mean that the solution lies with the federal judiciary." The majority justices seem to think that solution lies with state or federal legislatures, where the problem arose in the first place. (Interestingly, the Court broke with previous doctrine in 1962 and ruled that the drawing of state congressional districts was not a political question beyond their purview.)

What it means in real terms for citizens voting is that current political parties will continue to seek to entrench their power by breaking up districts with a majority of voters affiliated with the other party.

Not all the justices agreed, however, and Justice Elena Kagan was especially disappointed in the non-ruling. "Of all times to abandon the Court's duty to declare the law, this was not the one," she wrote in dissent. "The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the Court's role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections."

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