The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday declared that it’s not judges’ place to settle disputes over partisan gerrymandering in Maryland or other states.
The highly-anticipated ruling, in which the court split 5-4 along ideological lines, is a huge victory for Maryland Democrats who redrew the maps to their advantage following the 2010 Census. Plaintiffs in the case argued that the state’s map discriminated against Republicans.
But the conservative wing of the high court found that it’s not their place to police those political fights – and overall, that decision benefits Republicans nationally.
“Partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” said the majority opinion penned by Chief Justice John Roberts.
He was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
They found that judicial interference in the process would be an “unprecedented expansion of judicial power” and would lead to court intervention “unlimited in scope and duration — it would recur over and over again around the country with each new round of districting.”
The case was combined with another gerrymandering dispute from North Carolina, in which plaintiffs complained that their state’s redistricting plan discriminated against Democrats.
Democrats have a 7-1 advantage in the Maryland congressional delegation, while in North Carolina, the GOP holds an 8-3 edge, with two seats that had been held by Republicans currently vacant and up for grabs in forthcoming special elections. One of those races is considered a tossup, while the GOP is heavily favored in the other special election.
The court’s liberal wing issued a scathing dissent penned by Justice Elena Kagan.
“For the first time ever, this Court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities,” she wrote.
“And not just any constitutional violation. 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.”
Kagan was joined in the dissent by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.
The court ruling means that the General Assembly will not meet in a special session this year to create a new map for the 2020 congressional elections. But the issue of how congressional and legislative boundaries are created in Maryland will continue to be a political battle for the next few years, at least.
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), who has made redistricting reform a top priority since taking office in 2015 and submitted an amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case, expressed deep disappointment in the court ruling.
“I pledge to vigorously continue this fight, both in Maryland and across our nation,” the governor said in a statement. “Gerrymandering is wrong, and both parties are guilty. It stifles real political debate, contributes to our bitter partisan polarization, and deprives citizens of meaningful choices. The voters should pick their representatives, not the other way around. I will do everything in my power to restore free and fair elections for the people.”
Hogan vowed to reintroduce legislation in the 2020 General Assembly session to create a nonpartisan redistricting commission to take the map-drawing for congressional and legislative boundaries out of the hands of partisan politicians.
Democrats have so far resisted his attempts to do so. But the next round of redistricting, following the 2020 Census, will be the first time Maryland leaders have drawn political maps with a Republican governor since the 1950’s.
In a statement, state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said the court ruling affirmed his opinion that the Maryland congressional map was constitutional – and that “a national solution” is needed to eradicate gerrymandering.
“With this lawsuit over, I hope we can put the issue of the 2011 Redistricting to rest and focus on the many pressing issues facing all Marylanders,” Miller said.
House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) also expressed disappointment that the Supreme Court didn’t attempt to fashion a national standard for gerrymandering.
U.S. Rep. David J. Trone (D-Md.) – whose 6th District, which covers Western Maryland and parts of Montgomery County, was the target of the Maryland gerrymandering lawsuit – used the Supreme Court ruling to urge the Senate to pass House political reform legislation which, among other things, would lead to nationwide redistricting reform.
“We need a national standard to end partisan gerrymandering,” Trone said in a statement. “Now that the Court has decided that it won’t take a role in addressing this issue, the Senate must pass legislation to fix this problem once and for all.”
As a practical matter, Trone’s reelection prospects just brightened. The 6th District gave Hillary Clinton 55 percent of the vote in the 2016 White House election compared to 40 percent for President Trump. A proposed new map advanced earlier this year by a commission Hogan assembled, which he would have attempted to put in place had the Supreme Court mandated a newly-drawn 6th District for the 2020 election, would have created a 53 percent to 42 percent Trump district.
Del. Neil C. Parrott (R-Washington) has created an exploratory committee for a possible bid against Trone. No other Republican has stepped forward, and with the current 6th District map intact, no other “name” Republican is likely to join the race this election cycle.