On June 27, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled 5-4 in both Rucho v. Common Cause (North Carolina) and Lamone v. Benisek (Maryland) that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions that fall beyond the jurisdiction of the federal judiciary. The high court combined the cases and issued a single joint decision covering both.
Chief Justice John Roberts penned the majority opinion, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh. In the court’s opinion, Roberts noted that the Framers, “aware of electoral districting problems … [assigned] the issue to the state legislatures, expressly checked and balanced by the Federal Congress, with no suggestion that the federal courts had a role to play.” He said, “To hold that legislators cannot take their partisan interests into account when drawing district lines would essentially countermand the Framers’ decision to entrust districting to political entities.”
Roberts went on to address the assumptions underlying partisan gerrymandering claims: “Partisan gerrymandering claims rest on an instinct that groups with a certain level of political support should enjoy a commensurate level of political power and influence. Explicitly or implicitly, a districting map is alleged to be unconstitutional because it makes it too difficult for one party to translate statewide support into seats in the legislature. But such a claim is based on a ‘norm that does not exist’ in our electoral system—’statewide elections for representatives along party lines.’” Roberts also wrote, “[Federal] courts are not equipped to apportion political power as a matter of fairness, nor is there any basis for concluding that they were authorized to do so.”
Justice Elena Kagan penned a dissent, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor. Kagan wrote the following in her dissent: “The partisan gerrymanders in these cases deprived citizens of the most fundamental of their constitutional rights: the rights to participate equally in the political process, to join with others to advance political beliefs, and to choose their political representatives. In so doing, the partisan gerrymanders here debased and dishonored our democracy, turning upside-down the core American idea that all governmental power derives from the people.”
The high court remanded both cases to the respective lower courts with instructions to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. The lower court decisions had thrown out existing congressional district plans as impermissible partisan gerrymanders. As a result of the high court’s ruling, those district plans will remain in place heading into 2020. Earlier this year, a federal district court struck down Michigan’s congressional and state legislative district plans as partisan gerrymanders. That decision, which had been stayed by the Supreme Court pending resolution of Rucho and Lamone, will likely be vacated and remanded in light of the high court’s ruling.