WASHINGTON — Two potential blockbuster U.S. Supreme Court cases that could have shifted the balance of political power in legislative districts across the country ended yesterday with a punt by the justices.
Instead of ruling on the constitutionality of political gerrymandering — where state legislatures draw state and federal congressional district lines in order to help preserve the advantage of one political party — the court instead disposed of challenges to district maps in Maryland and Wisconsin on the basis of procedural technicalities.
But with more constitutional challenges in the pipeline, the issue could rebound to the nation’s highest court by the 2020 election.
“The Supreme Court missed an opportunity today to lay down a firm marker as to when partisan gerrymandering is so extreme that it violates the constitutional rights of voters,” said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, which has lodged challenges to other states’ voting districts, including Ohio.
In a unanimous opinion, Chief Justice John G. Roberts wrote that the challengers to Republican-drawn district maps in Wisconsin failed to show “particularized injuries” that would allow them to bring the constitutional challenge. In the Maryland case, the justices said in an unsigned opinion that the challengers of a Democratic politically gerrymandered district failed to show they were entitled to a preliminary injunction.
But both cases will continue in lower courts as more challenges from states including Ohio and North Carolina make their way through the courts, all but ensuring the nation’s highest court will get another crack to lay down a standard to determine when political gerrymandering runs afoul of the Constitution.
In a concurrence, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that it is the duty of courts to consider this question in the future as the practice of voting district “packing and cracking” becomes more common.
“Courts have a critical role to play in curbing partisan gerrymandering,” Kagan wrote, adding: “politicians’ incentives conflict with voters’ interests, leaving citizens without any political remedy for their constitutional harms.”
Voting rights attorneys and advocates expressed an urgency to get more challenges to the court to rule before the next round of electoral map-drawing.
“Resolution of these issues for both lawmakers and voters is critical as we rapidly approach the 2020 redistricting cycle,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.