WASHINGTON D.C. — More than two years after nonpartisan good government advocates at Common Cause filed a complaint about a Republican gerrymander in North Carolina and five years after a Common Cause volunteer filed a complaint about a Democratic gerrymander in Maryland, plaintiffs will finally have their day in the Supreme Court of the United States to argue that partisan gerrymanders are unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court today announced that it will hear Rucho v. Common Cause and Lamone v. Benisek and potentially set a national precedent on how to draw fair maps for congressional candidates in time for the redistricting triggered by the 2020 census.
Common Cause argues that extreme partisan gerrymandering punishes supporters of the minority party based on their political beliefs and in violation of the First Amendment. Oral arguments will take place in March 2019.
“Whether it is Democrats or Republicans manipulating the election maps, gerrymanders cheat voters out of true representation,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause. “The Supreme Court has the opportunity to set a clear standard that will restore a meaningful vote to millions of Americans disenfranchised by gerrymanders in Maryland, North Carolina and across the country.”
The Supreme Court announcement comes after several states approved major changes to their redistricting processes via ballot initiatives and legislative measures in 2018. Citizens unequivocally said they want to revolutionize how legislative and congressional districts are drawn – by limiting the power of politicians and giving it to mapmakers who value community input and transparency.
“Partisan gerrymandering is not just a Republican problem or a Democrat problem, it is a politician problem,” said Kathay Feng, Common Cause national redistricting director. “Politicians have shown time and again that they cannot resist the temptation to draw maps that protect their power and party at the expense of the American people. We hope the Supreme Court will put people over party.”
Rucho v. Common Cause Background
In Rucho v. Common Cause, a three-judge trial court agreed with plaintiff nonpartisan, grassroots group Common Cause that legislators and mapmakers deliberately robbed North Carolinians of their ability to elect candidates of their choice in 2016 through a partisan gerrymander. In discussing the new map on the floor of the General Assembly, Rep. David Lewis, who drew the districts, publicly stated that his goal was “to gain partisan advantage” for the Republican party. The majority party cracked nine districts and packed three to dilute the power of Democratic votes.
The gerrymandering was so effective, North Carolina Republicans even withstood the blue wave in the midterm elections. In 2018, North Carolina Democrats received 48 percent of the total votes cast in House races, but still only won three seats out of 13. Republicans had 50 percent of the vote and won 9 House seats because they drew the maps to give themselves a partisan advantage. Common Cause asks the Court to prohibit this blatant rigging of the system for partisan advantage. (A 10th seat has not yet been certified due to fraud allegations.)
This is the second time Rucho v. Common Cause has appeared on the Supreme Court calendar. Earlier this summer, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the federal district court to clarify the plaintiffs’ standing to sue following its ruling in Gill v. Whitford. Like the first iteration of the case, the district court again ruled in favor of Common Cause on the basis that North Carolina’s 2016 gerrymander of its congressional districts violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments in addition to two provisions of Article I of the U.S. Constitution. The trial court consolidated this case with League of Women Voters of North Carolina v. Rucho.
“We are pleased the Justices have agreed to hear our case against partisan gerrymandering,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina. “We are confident that, just as the federal district court did, the Supreme Court will rule that partisan gerrymandering violates the constitutional rights of voters. This case is key to finally ending gerrymandering in North Carolina and across the nation.”
Lamone v. Benisek Background
In Lamone v. Benisek, a three-judge trial court found that Maryland Democrats had violated the U.S. Constitution by drawing a map that made it nearly impossible for a Republican to be elected in its Sixth Congressional District. The Democratic mapmakers drew boundaries to remove 66,000 voters who historically voted for Republicans and replace them with about 24,000 voters with Democratic voting records. A Democrat won the seat in 2012 and again in 2018.
This is the third time Lamone v. Benisek appears on the Supreme Court calendar. Most recently in June, the high court declined to hear the case on its merits and the case went to a trial court for a full hearing. The trial court called gerrymandering “repugnant to representative democracy,” struck down the Sixth District map and ordered a new map for the 2020 election.
In addition to filing an amicus brief, Common Cause coordinated multiple amici briefs from bipartisan leaders to end this extreme partisan gerrymandering. We also back Maryland legislation that would create an independent commission to redraw the map.
“Political power brokers explicitly silence Maryland voters through gerrymandering,” said Damon Effingham, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. “We ask the Supreme Court to stop politicians from entrenching themselves in power against the people’s will.”
Meet the Legal Teams
Plaintiff Common Cause is joined in the Rucho litigation by the North Carolina Democratic Party and disenfranchised voters in each of the 13 gerrymandered districts. They are represented by Emmet J. Bondurant, Jason J. Carter, and Benjamin W. Thorpe of Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore LLP; Gregory L. Diskant, Jonah M. Knobler, Peter A. Nelson and Elena Steiger Reich of Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP; and Edwin M. Speas, Jr., Caroline P. Mackie and Steve Epstein of Poyner Spruill LLP.
Plaintiff John Benisek is represented by Michael B. Kimberly, Paul W. Hughes, Stephen M. Medlock, E. Brantley Webb, and Micah D. Stein of Mayer Brown LLP. Amicus supporting plaintiff Common Cause is represented by Benjamin W. Thorpe and Emmet J. Bondurant of Bondurant Mixson & Elmore LLP, Gregory L. Diskant, Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP; and Michael A. Pretl.
Members of the legal teams will present on the legal theories of the case Jan. 25-26 at the Reason, Reform & Redistricting Conference co-hosted by Common Cause and Duke University’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service (POLIS). Media are invited to attend the conference.