The long-standing practice of gerrymandering — redrawing voting district lines to favor the political party in power — has come under increased scrutiny in recent years. And two legal challenges to partisan gerrymandering, one from Maryland and the other from Wisconsin, made their way to the Supreme Court this term.
But in a decision that hardly feels like one, the Court declined to take a definitive stand on when gerrymandering along political lines goes too far, opting instead to rule on more technical grounds. So, what did the justices actually say on the matter?
In the Maryland case, Republican voters claimed Democratic rejiggering of the state’s congressional lines violated their constitutional rights. A district court judge declined to grant a preliminary injunction blocking the state’s 2011 congressional map, and the Supreme Court unanimously agreed. Not because they determined the gerrymandering to be constitutional, but because the legal uncertainty around the issue justified the judge’s decision and most of the plaintiffs waited five years after the map was enacted to sue.
In Wisconsin, it was Democratic voters challenging a state legislative map also drawn in 2011. In that case, the Court ruled that the plaintiffs failed to prove they were injured by the drawing of the new boundaries since none of them claimed to be in a district altered to give Republicans a near-guaranteed win. Still, seven of the justices agreed that the case could possibly be made later in the lower courts.
While the Court has definitively ruled that racially-motivated gerrymandering is illegal, it has had a tougher time with the politically-motivated kind. And these non-decisions, coming as they do with the opportunity to appear apolitical by striking both Democrat and Republican redistricting plans, will do little to appease opponents of gerrymandering, who argue that “packing” and “cracking” districts creates misrepresentations of the voting majorities in state and federal legislatures. With another round of redistricting on deck in 2021 after the 2020 census, the Supreme Court also missed an opportunity to set the legal tone for how redrawing those lines must be done.
And with both cases still alive, the Court may have only kicked the responsibility of tackling the bigger First Amendment issues down the road temporarily.