On March 26, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments in two partisan gerrymandering cases, Rucho v. Common Cause and Lamone v. Benisek. During the course of arguments, the justices appeared divided over the issues central to both cases: are partisan gerrymandering claims justiciable under federal law, and should federal courts intervene to settle disputes over alleged partisan gerrymandering?
Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, appointed to the court by Pres. Donald Trump (R), asked Emmet Bondurant, counsel for Common Cause, the following: “What do we do as well about the — the fact that about 20 states, as I understand it, from — from your friend on the other side, have dealt with this problem through citizen initiatives as a remedy to deal with this, including, I think, five of them just this last election and a bunch more on the ballot in the coming election. Why should we wade into this — when that alternative exists?”
Associate Justice Elena Kagan, a Barack Obama (D) appointee, disputed Gorsuch’s claim: “I mean, going down that road would suggest that Justice Gorsuch’s attempt to sort of say this is not so bad because the people can fix it is not so true because you’re suggesting that the people really maybe can’t fix it, you were wrong about the people being able to fix it, and if the people could fix it, while it’s not the constitutionally prescribed way because it’s never been done before, so Justice Gorsuch’s attempts to save what’s so dramatically wrong here, which is the Court leaving this all to professional politicians who have an interest in districting according to their own partisan interests, seems to fail.”
Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, a Trump appointee, echoed Gorsuch’s inquiry: “But what about, to pick up on something Justice Gorsuch said earlier, that there is a fair amount of activity going on in the states on redistricting and attention in Congress and in state supreme courts? In other words, have we reached the moment, even though it would be a — have we really reached the moment, even though it would be a big lift for this Court to get involved, where the other actors can’t do it?”
Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, an Obama appointee, responded as follows to the point made by Paul Clement, counsel for Rucho, that partisan gerrymandering claims are not justiciable under federal law: “Once we decided the one person, one vote concept, we’ve been pretty much in all of our jurisprudence saying that certain acts by the legislature are unconstitutional, including race discrimination and others. It can’t be that simply because the Constitution says that a particular act is in the hands of one — one branch of government, that that deprives the courts of reviewing whether that action is constitutional or not.
The high court is expected to rule on both cases prior to the conclusion of the current term in June of this year.
The phrase partisan gerrymandering refers to the practice of drawing electoral district maps with the intention of favoring one political party over another. In contrast with racial gerrymandering, on which issue the Supreme Court of the United States has issued rulings in the past affirming that such practices violate federal law, the high court has not yet a ruling establishing clear precedent on the question of partisan gerrymandering. Although the court heard two partisan gerrymandering cases last term, it ruled on procedural and standing grounds in each, without addressing the question of justiciability.
For more information about these cases, see our articles: