The U.S. Supreme Court has long been reluctant to impose restrictions on gerrymandering, the practice of drawing election districts for partisan advantage. There’s no accepted standard to say where justified redistricting stops and outright vote-rigging begins, and any ruling might arouse suspicions of partisanship. There are signs, however, that this hesitancy might be coming to an end — and not a moment too soon.
In October, the court heard arguments in a case from Wisconsin, where legislators so distorted the state’s political map that Republicans went on to win almost two-thirds of the state assembly seats with less than half of the popular vote. The case involves an explicit attempt to provide an objective standard: the so-called vote efficiency test.
That might deal with one of the justices’ concerns. The other remained. During oral arguments, Chief Justice John Roberts worried that even seeming to take political sides might cause “very serious harm to the status and integrity of this court in the eyes of the country.”
Then, in an unusual move, earlier this month the Supreme Court agreed to consider arguments in a case challenging Maryland’s 2011 congressional district map. (The court doesn’t normally take a case if it’s already considering one raising similar issues.) In Maryland, the controversy is over a district that Democrats designed to make it very hard for Republicans to win.
Reading the minds of Supreme Court justices is ill-advised, but in this case hard to resist. Combining the Wisconsin and Maryland cases offers the court something that neither case can provide on its own: partisan symmetry. If the court struck down gerrymandering in Maryland, the ruling would benefit Republicans. If it did the same in Wisconsin, it would benefit Democrats.
Taking the cases together affords an the court an opportunity to establish a constitutional standard for gerrymandering while avoiding, at the outset at least, the kind of partisan sniping that Roberts fears could damage the court’s reputation. If that’s the idea, then it’s a good one.
— Bloomberg View