Supreme Court Decision on Redistricting Hangs in the Hands of Justice Kennedy

Most past gerrymandering decisions have been based on the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection guarantee, but Gill vs. Whitford reached the Supreme Court after a district court ruled that the Wisconsin map watered down the voting rights of citizens on based on their party affiliation - in other words, the district lines violated voters' First Amendment right to free association.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the Wisconsin case Tuesday.

If Kennedy joins the liberal justices in striking down the Wisconsin map, the precedent could affect about one-third of all districts drawn for Congress and state legislatures. Appearing on the PBS NewsHour program, Coyle picked up on comments from Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justice Anthony Kennedy.

By one such tool known as the "efficiency gap," which basically tries to measure competitiveness in districts by comparing single district election margins throughout the state, Pennsylvania's congressional seats are said to be the most-gerrymandered in the nation. And if the court can step in, the justices are trying to figure out if there is a fair standard they can use to evaluate the maps. The lower court sided with the couple, asserting that the case represented a straightforward instance of a business discriminating against gay people, which is prohibited under Colorado law.

"Cameras change the institution and education is not unimportant, but it's not the answer for ensuring that there is actually a discussion going on that can be looked at by others in writing", said Justice Sotomayor, speaking at Democracy at a Crossroads, a civics education conference.

During its questioning, the Court wrestled with the question of how to determine when a redistricting plan is excessively partisan.

Justice Samuel A. Alito agreed. "What's this court supposed to do, a pinch of this, a pinch of that?"

The challengers received some muscular support.

Gerrymandering is hardly new: the name dates back to an unwieldy district created in 1812 by Elbridge Gerry, then governor of MA. Now, with the assistance of software, state legislators are able to control gerrymandering or who ends up in a particular district with more precision than ever before.

"The congressional map itself, the shape of the districts, the freakish shapes of the districts, which can't be explained by any non-partisan kind of reasoning, that's going to be a very telling fact in this case", Gersch said. That's the process by which the political party drawing legislative maps gives itself an undeniable advantage by manipulating districts' boundary lines. That's why Justice Roberts warned his colleagues that allowing the court to be dragged into partisan swamps where they would be forced to pick winners and losers would "cause serious harm to the status and integrity of the decisions of this court in the eyes of the country".

There might well be a good argument for reining in partisan gerrymandering. Justice Clarence Thomas asked no questions, but he is expected to side with the conservatives. Under the Plaintiffs' theory, any voter, anywhere in any state, could complain that his or her vote was diminished by not being granted the right to be counted proportionally with other like-minded voters in the state to elect a proportional number within the legislature. The case centers on political maps drawn in Wisconsin after the 2010 census. The party's majority has since expanded.

In a 2004 partisan gerrymander case, conservatives on the court said they thought the issue should be handled by the political branches. "First Amendment concerns arise where a state enacts a law that has the goal and effect of subjecting a group of voters or their party to disfavored treatment by reason of their views".

  • Leroy Wright