The U.S. Supreme Court held Thursday that federal courts have no role in policing political districts drawn for partisan gain. The decision comes just six months out from the next round of census taking that shapes political boundaries every 10 years.
The court's conservative Republican-appointed majority said in a 5-4 decision that voters and elected officials should be the arbiters of what is a political dispute, rejecting challenges to Republican-drawn congressional districts in North Carolina and a Democratic district in Maryland.
Chief Justice John Roberts said for the majority that districting plans “are highly partisan by any measure” and that courts are the wrong place to settle these disputes.
The decision effectively reverses the outcome of rulings in Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina and Ohio, where courts had ordered new maps drawn, and ends proceedings in Wisconsin, where a retrial was supposed to take place this summer after the Supreme Court threw out a decision on procedural grounds last year.
Thursday’s opinion still leaves challenges in state courts open to proponents of limiting partisan gerrymandering, however, as happened in Pennsylvania in 2018.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which maintains a 5-2 Democratic advantage, held last year that the 2011 redistricting process produced a map that was disproportionately in favor of Republican candidates following a legal challenge from the League of Women Voters on behalf of voters in each congressional district. Democrats in the 2012 Congressional elections won more than 50 percent of the total votes cast in the state, but took just five of Pennsylvania's 18 seats in the U.S. House.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf to reach a compromise on a new map, but that never came to pass. The court ultimately instituted its own map over Republican objections of judicial overreach. Conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito later rejected a request from state GOP leaders to stay the order.
Pennsylvania now has nine Democrats and nine Republicans represented in the U.S. House following the 2018 Congressional elections.
Pennsylvania Republican Party Acting Chairman Bernadette “Bernie” Comfort said Thursday that the SCOTUS decision to leave boundary disagreements out of federal courts was a confirmation of the GOP’s position during the redistricting fight.
Comfort – who stepped into the position earlier this week when former Chairman Val DiGiorgio abruptly resigned in the face of allegations that he exchanged flirtatious text messages with a Republican Philadelphia City Council candidate – referred to the state Supreme Court as “Democrat activists in black robes” who acted as “a shadow Legislature to force a Democrat-created partisan gerrymander on Pennsylvania.”
“The 2018 decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was a miscarriage of justice that was a gift to the court’s allies in the Democrat Party that sought any means necessary — even through extra-legal fiat — to obstruct the work of President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress,” said Comfort.
“It’s exactly what we said all along,” said Delaware County Republican Party Chairman Tom McGarrigle. “It makes it clear that the (state) Supreme Court, what they did was wrong.”
McGarrigle said the state Legislature should “make it right” during next year’s redistricting by cutting Philadelphia out of the 5th Congressional District. He said including a section of the heavily Democratic city into a district encompassing Delco never should have happened in the first place and the Legislature “needs to correct it.”
Delaware County Democratic Party leader Colleen Guiney called the SCOTUS decision along party lines “unsurprisingly disappointing.”
“I’m sad to see this happen, but I already have gotten emails and calls from people who want to continue to work for fair districts in Pennsylvania, and those of us who want fair representation will not be deterred,” she said. “People are going to try to keep making things better in this country and, unfortunately, the Supreme Court is not on our side on this.”
Representatives from the Public Interest Law Center and the law firm Arnold & Porter, which filed the complaint for the LWV that resulted in the new 2018 boundaries, also expressed disappointment with Thursday’s decision in a release.
The release argued that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision to toss the 2011 maps comported with the Pennsylvania Constitution and that nothing in Thursday’s decision undercuts the power of state supreme courts to have the last word on the meaning of state constitutions or strike down partisan gerrymanders.
“This decision is not the end of the fight against partisan gerrymandering — far from it,” said Public Interest Law Center Legal Director Mimi McKenzie. “Voters in states around the country should look to protections in their state constitutions and to state courts to ensure that the maps drawn in 2021 are fair and allow every vote to count. Even today’s shameful decision from the Supreme Court acknowledged that ‘state statutes and state constitutions can provide standards and guidance for state courts to apply.’ Nevertheless, we vehemently disagree that the U.S. Constitution does not provide similar protections for the fundamental right to vote.”
“I can’t say I was too surprised,” said state Sen. Tim Kearney, D-26 of Swarthmore. “With the make-up of the court, this is kind of an expected decision. I think it really points to the need for us to push through an independent redistricting system. We really need to take politics out of the process of how boundaries are drawn.”
“I would be absolutely in favor of that, as long as you can come up with a way to find completely independent people,” said state Rep. Chris Quinn, R-168 of Middletown. “You would almost have to draft people the same way we draft jurors in hearings.”
Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling in 2018, Quinn said, he believes SCOTUS made the right decision by punting the issue back to the states.
“The states need to be ultimately held accountable for their own politics,” he said. “I think we really just need to get together and figure out how to come up with fair districts. We don’t have fair districts today in general in lots of areas. Maryland obviously doesn’t have fair districts. Massachusetts doesn’t have fair districts. But it’s hard. It’s really hard.”
Quinn noted he comes from a fairly contiguous district, but said he believes boundaries should be drawn as close as possible to a 50-50 margin of registered voters so that races are always competitive.
He added that legislators redrawing maps after the next census will need to apply the lessons learned from 2011 as well as 2018 in making sure constituents elect their representatives – and not the other way around.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.