WASHINGTON (CN) - The Supreme Court delivered defeat to election-reform advocates for the second year in a row Thursday, reinstating gerrymandered district maps that it called "highly partisan, by any measure."
In contrast to its experience with racial gerrymandering, the court has long struggled to set a manageable standard for when, how and even if courts should evaluate if lawmakers take political considerations too far when dividing up their state legislative maps. Dual cases out of Maryland and North Carolina presented the court an opportunity to finally answer those questions.
Divided on party lines, the justices ruled 5-4 Thursday that the decision is not one courts should make.
"No one can accuse this court of having a crabbed view of the reach of its competence," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for a conservative majority. "But we have no commission to allocate political power and influence in the absence of a constitutional directive or legal standards to guide us in the exercise of such authority. 'It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.' In this rare circumstance, that means our duty is to say 'this is not law.'”
Caroline Fredrickson, president of the American Constitution Society, said in a statement that the court’s majority “ran away from the democracy enshrined in the Constitution and our laws.”
“Voters should pick the politicians, not the other way around,” she said. “Today, the Supreme Court dealt a serious blow to that basic concept, turning its back on our democracy as a whole and it is now up to individual states to set clear rules that block overtly partisan redistricting efforts and ensure everybody’s vote counts equally.”
The challenge had been one experts described as among the cleanest possible cases to test whether the court would step into partisan gerrymandering disputes. In North Carolina, a group of Democrats and nonprofits accused the state's Republican majority of carving up voting districts in such a way that Democrats had little chance of ever regaining control of the state, even in national wave elections.
Along with that case, the justices considered a challenge from Maryland's 6th Congressional District, where a group of Republicans accused state Democrats of having reshaped the district to clear out a longtime GOP stronghold. The Supreme Court heard the Maryland claims once before but sent it back last year on procedural grounds.
In a dissent she delivered from the bench with "great sadness," Justice Elena Kagan said lower courts have been perfectly capable of assessing gerrymanders for years and that the court now leaves an existential threat to fair elections in the hands of politicians who directly benefit from partisan gerrymanders.