The Supreme Court will take another pass at the thorny issue of partisan gerrymandering next week, hearing arguments in Benisek v. Lamone, a challenge to map-making by the Democratic-controlled Maryland legislature that was designed to unseat a longtime Republican congressman.
The case, to be argued next Wednesday, is one of two on the court’s docket that invite the justices to end or limit efforts by state legislators to draw congressional and legislative districts that effectively shut down partisan competition. The high court heard arguments in Gill v. Whitford, a challenge to legislative districts in Wisconsin, last fall; a decision in both cases is expected by June.
The arguments come in the midst of a growing grassroots movement to shift responsibility for drawing the nation’s political boundaries from politicians to independent citizens’ commissions. “There is a revolution that is underway,” Kathay Feng, Common Cause’s national redistricting director, told reporters during a briefing on the Benisek case this morning.
“This is a key moment in the fight against partisan gerrymandering, and it’s a key bipartisan moment,” agreed Michael Li, a lawyer at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice who authored a friend-of-the-court brief in Benisek. Unless the court acts, the increasing sophistication of computer software that allows mapmakers to pinpoint Republican and Democratic households will enable partisan lawmakers to draw districts in 2021 that will be even more gerrymandered than those that came out of the 2011 redistricting, he said.
“What seemed like a fantasy in 2011 will seem like child’s play in 2021,” Li warned.
Beginning in California, where a Common Cause-led coalition won a long fight for an independent commission in 2008, redistricting reform campaigns have sprung up in Arizona, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Georgia, Minnesota, and other states, Feng noted. Supporters include labor organizations and business groups, liberal activists and staunch conservatives.
Michael Kimberly, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the Benisek case, said Democratic legislators re-fashioned Maryland’s 6th Congressional District in 2011 to punish the district’s Republican voters and replace their longtime GOP representative, Roscoe Bartlett, with a Democrat. The change gave Democrats a 7-1 majority in Maryland’s congressional delegation.
They succeeded. Bartlett, who carried the “old” district by 28 percentage points in 2010, lost the “new” one by 21 points in 2012. The revised boundaries added tens of thousands of Democrats in the Washington, D.C. suburbs to the district and pushed out reliably Republican supporters in the western Maryland counties that made up Bartlett’s home base.
The court has turned down past opportunities to intervene against partisan gerrymandering, even as it ruled that districts drawn to deny African-Americans and other minorities the ability to elect candidates of their choice are unconstitutional. But Justice Anthony Kennedy, a frequent swing voter, has indicated he wants to find a workable standard for the court to determine when lawmakers have gone too far in drawing districts based on partisanship.
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Issues: Voting and Elections