Supreme Court rules gerrymandering beyond reach of federal courts
Photo credit: Stephanie Sundier

Supreme Court rules gerrymandering beyond reach of federal courts

The US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Thursday that partisan gerrymandering cases cannot be decided by federal courts.

Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the court in Rucho v. Common Cause and Lamone v. Benisek, a consolidated partisan gerrymandering case. Voters from Maryland and North Carolina brought the claims alleging that the gerrymandering violated the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Elections Clause and Article I, §2, of the Constitution.

The court found that these claims present a non-justiciable political question, basing their ruling on the court’s precedent and on the history of gerrymandering in the political process. The court held in Gill v. Whitford that “considerable efforts in [earlier cases] leave unresolved whether claims of legal right may be brought in cases involving allegations of partisan gerrymandering. Two ‘threshold questions’ remained: standing, which [was] addressed in Gill, and whether such claims are justiciable.” The court on Thursday answered the second question, holding that these claims are not justiciable because the question is one to be resolved through the political process: “partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.”

Roberts noted that, “Our conclusion does not condone excessive partisan gerrymandering. Nor does our conclusion condemn complaints about districting to echo into a void.” In short, the plaintiffs are directed to seek redress through the political process rather than the courts.

Justice Elena Kagan dissented, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. In the dissenting opinion, Kagan argued that partisan gerrymandering deprives citizens of the right to participate equally in the political process and to choose their political representatives—both constitutional rights. Kagan noted that that the majority conceded that gerrymandering is “incompatible with democratic principles,” and issued a scathing critique of the majority for their lack of action.

The dissent also notes that while partisan gerrymandering is not a new concept and has been present in political life since the “Republic’s earliest days,” there have been significant developments in data and technology that allow modern gerrymandering to be “far more effective and durable than before, insulating politicians against all but the most titanic shifts in the political tides.”

Kagan argued that the process developed by the lower courts should be adopted rather than vacated and that federal courts have the authority and the duty to address the issues of partisan gerrymandering.