Supreme Court finds that courts can't rule on partisan gerrymandering cases

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on Thursday that political partisan gerrymandering cases are outside the purview of federal courts, a decision that underscored the ideological divide among the nine justices and is sure to have lasting implications.

The ruling was met with almost immediate outcry from Democrats and anti-gerrymandering activists, and is a major blow for those who sought to challenge in court politically-drawn district maps that they believed to be unconstitutional.

ADVERTISEMENT

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the court's majority opinion that federal courts cannot consider partisan gerrymandering cases.

"Excessive partisanship in districting leads to results that reasonably seem unjust. But the fact that such gerrymandering is 'incompatible with democratic principles,' does not mean that the solution lies with the federal judiciary," Roberts wrote.

"We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts. Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions."

Conservative Justices Clarence ThomasClarence ThomasLocked and Loaded: Supreme Court is ready for a showdown on the Second Amendment Two conservatives resign from Biden's Supreme Court commission Sotomayor says recent changes were made because male justices interrupted female colleagues MORE, Samuel AlitoSamuel AlitoLocked and Loaded: Supreme Court is ready for a showdown on the Second Amendment The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - Jan. 6 panel flexes its muscle Sen. Whitehouse blasts Alito speech: 'You have fouled your nest, not us' MORE, Neil GorsuchNeil GorsuchLocked and Loaded: Supreme Court is ready for a showdown on the Second Amendment Justices weigh request for information on CIA's post-9/11 torture program Supreme Court declines to hear dispute over DC representation in Congress MORE and Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughLocked and Loaded: Supreme Court is ready for a showdown on the Second Amendment Why Latinos need Supreme Court reform Feehery: A Republican Congress is needed to fight left's slide to autocracy MORE joined Roberts' majority opinion.

Justices Elena KaganElena KaganSupreme Court considers Kentucky AG's power to defend abortion restriction Alito bristles over criticism of Supreme Court's 'shadow docket' North Carolina voting rights ruling offers a model of anti-racist jurisprudence MORE, Ruth Bader GinsburgRuth Bader GinsburgCouric defends editing of RBG interview Biden's Supreme Court commission ends not with a bang but a whimper The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - Jan. 6 panel flexes its muscle MORE, Stephen BreyerStephen BreyerOvernight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — FDA moves to sell hearing aids over-the-counter Supreme Court won't block vaccine mandate for Maine health care workers Breyer: Supreme Court 'fallible,' but has served US 'pretty well' MORE and Sonia SotomayorSonia SotomayorThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - Jan. 6 panel flexes its muscle Sotomayor says recent changes were made because male justices interrupted female colleagues Why Latinos need Supreme Court reform MORE — the court's liberal members — dissented.

The ruling opens the door for instances of partisan gerrymandering in district maps to be upheld across the country – a possibility that Justice Elena Kagan decried in a stinging dissent.

"For the first time ever, this court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities," Kagan wrote. 

"In giving such gerrymanders a pass from judicial review, the majority goes tragically wrong," she added.

Kagan underscored her level of opposition to the ruling by reading part of her dissent from the bench.

The justices made the ruling in a pair of cases presented over district maps in Maryland and North Carolina, alleged to be instances of unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders.

Democrats in North Carolina had challenged congressional districts drawn by Republicans, claiming that the state GOP crafted the map to favor their party. And Republicans in Maryland had claimed that the state’s map was drawn in such a way that it intentionally eliminated a GOP congressional seat.

Thursday's ruling also means pending litigation challenging other states' congressional districts as partisan gerrymanders are all but certain to fail.

The justices were weighing district maps in Ohio and Michigan that were also challenged as instances of partisan gerrymandering, but this ruling signals that the cases will also be dismissed.

Democrats quickly came out against the decision, as did voting rights groups, claiming that it sets a dangerous precedent and allows state maps to be restructured at the will of whichever political party controls the state legislature.

Former Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderArkansas legislature splits Little Rock in move that guarantees GOP seats Oregon legislature on the brink as Democrats push gerrymandered maps Christie, Pompeo named co-chairs of GOP redistricting group MORE, who has focused on fighting partisan gerrymandering since leaving office, decried the ruling.

"This decision tears at the fabric of our democracy and puts the interests of the established few above the many," he said Thursday. "History will not be kind in its assessment."