Benisek v. Lamone, being argued this morning in the Supreme Court, raises what is arguably the most important question before the justices in their current term and could permanently transform American politics – for the better.
One of two challenges to partisan gerrymandering on the court’s docket, the case centers on efforts by Democratic state legislators in Maryland to unseat a veteran Republican congressman by reshaping his district to add tens of thousands of Democrats and subtract just as many of his GOP supporters.
The gambit worked; Rep. Roscoe Bartlett lost his seat in Congress in 2012. His defeat in the state’s 6th Congressional District gave Democrats a 7-1 advantage in Maryland’s congressional delegation.
Common Cause is part of a broad-based coalition of individuals and organizations, including the League of Women Voters, the Brennan Center for Justice, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, and former California Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis, that are urging the high court to declare that the reshaping of Bartlett’s district disenfranchised Republican voters and thus violated their free speech rights.
The Benisek case originated with a Common Cause Maryland member, Steve Shapiro. Though he is registered to vote as a Democrat, the contorted lines of the 6th District so offended him that he filed suit and pursued the case as a law student. You can read a fact sheet on the case here.
The coalition also is supporting the plaintiffs in Gill v. Whitford, a challenge to a Republican-led gerrymander in Wisconsin that helped the GOP lock down control of the state legislature; the justices heard arguments in that case last fall but have not announced a decision.
Whatever the justices decide, the cases already have pumped energy into a national drive to end partisan gerrymandering by shifting responsibility for drawing congressional and legislative districts from elected officials to independent citizens’ commissions.
More than a dozen states have created such commissions, though in most the ultimate authority for drawing districts remains in the hands of elected legislators. The Supreme Court traditionally has given legislators wide latitude to shape districts on partisan grounds but has insisted they cannot discriminate based on race or ethnicity.
As dawn arrived this morning, activists gathered at the Supreme Court for arguments in Benisek v. Lamone, a landmark challenge to partisan gerrymandering.
Issues: Voting and Elections