In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal courts cannot interfere in partisan congressional maps, effectively upholding the practice of partisan gerrymandering.
The case, which was brought by voters in North Carolina and Maryland, challenged the constitutionality of redrawing congressional districts to favor one political party over another. In Maryland, lawmakers, including then-Gov. Martin O’Malley, admitted that the new 2010 Congressional District Map in Maryland was redrawn to intentionally favor Democratic candidates.
The Supreme Court split along conservative and liberal lines in its decision on June 27, with Chief Justice John Robert writing in the majority opinion said that the Constitution did not give courts authority to rule on congressional boundaries.
“No one can accuse this Court of having a crabbed view of the reach of its competence,” Roberts wrote. “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.”
Roberts was joined by Associate Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh in the majority opinion.
In Maryland, the issue has been a hot topic for Republicans, especially for Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who has used it as a wedge issue in the state. After lawmakers approved new congressional districts before the 2012 Midterm Elections, Republican voters filed suit, arguing the state’s new congressional maps violated their First Amendment right of freedom of association and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
On the day of the decision, Hogan released a statement expressing his disappointment in the court’s ruling.
“Today’s ruling was terribly disappointing to all who believe in fair elections,” Hogan said. “I pledge to vigorously continue this fight, both in Maryland and across our nation. Gerrymandering is wrong, and both parties are guilty. It stifles real political debate, contributes to our bitter partisan polarization, and deprives citizens of meaningful choices.”
Gerrymandering, the process by which lawmakers draw congressional maps to intentionally give a major electoral advantage to one party over another, is a controversial and bipartisan practice that is widespread in the United States.
For Democratic lawmakers in Maryland, the question of whether they deliberately tried to limit Republicans’ ability to win congressional elections is not in dispute.
After the 2010 census, when all the states redrew their congressional maps to adjust to shifting demographics, Democratic lawmakers in Maryland – sensing a push by Republicans in others states to gerrymander their own districts, in their view – retaliated. While the state’s Sixth Congressional District has been reliably Republican for 20-years under Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, Democratic lawmakers redrew the map so that the Sixth District would include many more Democratic voters.
The new Sixth District boundaries, which now include pieces of heavily Democratic Gaithersburg, Germantown and Potomac, swung Democratic in the 2012 election, with John Delaney easily defeating the 10-time incumbent Bartlett by almost 21 percentage points.
O’Malley admitted after the fact that districts were redrawn to favor Democrats, asking Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-5), a self-described “serial gerrymanderer,” to help advise the redistricting process.
“From Maryland, we watched Republican governors carve Democratic voters into irrelevance in state after state in order to help elect lopsided Republican congressional delegations,” O’Malley wrote in a USA Today op-ed. “We felt an obligation — even a duty — to push back. To provide some check, some balance against what was happening in 30 states that were now Republican controlled. Within legal and constitutional limits, we drew a map that elected an additional Democratic House member to our delegation.”
While a panel of federal judges ruled the state’s congressional map unconstitutional and ordered it to set up a bi-partisan commission to redraw the map in a fairer way, the Supreme Court decided to take Maryland’s case, along with a similar case in North Carolina – as a way of issuing a final ruling on the matter, which leaves congressional maps to state lawmakers – with checks from federal courts.
As an attempt for a ceasefire on partisan gerrymandering, some Democrats have called on Congress to fix the issue, given that it is now unlikely that the Supreme Court will in the near future.
“The Supreme Court has ruled that the question of partisan gerrymandering should be left to Federal and State legislatures,” Maryland Democratic Party Chairwoman Maya Rockeymoore. “The Maryland Democratic Party supports a nationwide redistricting initiative to address partisan gerrymandering, so that all 50 states are bound by the same rules to produce fair and proportional districts for all Americans.”