Supreme Court sidesteps partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin, Maryland cases

The Supreme Court on Monday sidestepped the issue of partisan gerrymandering, finding procedural grounds to rule against Democratic voters in Wisconsin and Republican voters in Maryland challenging their state maps.

The justices ruled narrowly against a group of Democratic voters in Wisconsin who challenged the state's 2011 redistricting plan as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander in a case known as Gill v. Whitford.

The court said the voters lacked standing to challenge the state’s entire map and remanded the case back down to the lower court to give them an opportunity to prove how they were injured.

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The voters alleged Republican legislators unfairly and strategically put them at a disadvantage, but in delivering the opinion of the court, Chief Justice John Roberts said the plaintiff’s alleged harm, which is the dilution of their vote power, is an injury that is specific to their voting district.

“Remedying the individual voter’s harm, therefore, does not necessarily require restructuring of all the state’s legislative districts,” he said.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch agreed that the voters lacked standing to bring the case forward, but dissented in the court’s decision to send the case back to the lower court.

"After a year and a half of litigation in the District Court, including a 4-day trial, the plaintiffs had a more-than-ample opportunity to prove their standing under these principles," Thomas wrote in a one-page dissent. "They failed to do so."

The court on Monday also ruled in an unsigned opinion against Republican voters in Maryland who claimed Democratic officials had unfairly put them at a disadvantage in drawing one congressional district.

In Benisek v. Lamone, the court affirmed a district court’s decision not to block Maryland from holding congressional elections under the 2011 map and force state officials redraw its Sixth Congressional District, now held by Rep. John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyMcAuliffe won't rule out 2020 run in Iowa campaign swing Did Congress just settle for less than best plan to reform housing finance? 2020 Dems jockey for position before midterm elections MORE (D).

Republican voters in the state had argued Democrats had drawn the district lines to dilute their voting power and beat the Republican incumbent, then-Rep. Roscoe Bartlett. They argue Democrats had retaliated against them for their political speech in violation of the First Amendment.

The court said the plaintiffs, who asked for the preliminary injunction in 2017, had waited too long to seek relief.

The Maryland case, which the district court put on hold pending the Supreme Court's decision in the Wisconsin case, can now proceed in the lower court.

The rulings marked a disappointment for voting rights advocates who had hoped the court would strike down a redistricting plan as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander for the first time and set a standard to assess when legislators have gone too far in drawing congressional maps that give their party an edge.

Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, said the court missed an opportunity to lay down a firm marker as to when partisan gerrymandering is so extreme that it violates the constitutional rights of voters.

“But the court permitted lawsuits against unfair maps to continue,” he said in a statement. “Cases around the country — including our challenge to Ohio’s gerrymandered congressional map — will remain ongoing to ensure that voters’ voices are heard.”

A conservative redistricting group, meanwhile, praised the court for ruling against the plaintiffs in both cases.

“Once again, plaintiffs seeking refuge through the courts for their political geography problems have been sent back to the drawing board,” Jason Torchinsky, legal counsel for the National Republican Redistricting Trust, said in a statement.

“In the future the Court should go further and reign in the flood of political gerrymandering litigation that is clogging federal courts with dubious political science theories."

The court in 2004 refused to wade into a dispute over Pennsylvania’s map without a clear standard to measure partisan gerrymandering.

But Justice Anthony Kennedy, who many assumed would be the swing vote on the cases this term, did not rule out the possibility of finding one in the future.

Another partisan gerrymandering case out of North Carolina is pending before the court, giving justices another opportunity to settle the issue next term.

--This report was updated at 12:30 p.m.