The Supreme Court declared Monday that it will consider whether gerrymandered election maps favoring one political party over another violate the Constitution, a potentially fundamental change in the way American elections are conducted.
The justices regularly are called to invalidate state electoral maps that have been illegally drawn to reduce the influence of racial minorities by depressing the impact of their votes.
But the Supreme Court has never found a plan unconstitutional because of partisan gerrymandering. If it does, it would have a revolutionary impact on the reapportionment that comes after the 2020 election, and could come at the expense of Republicans, who control the process in the majority of states.
The court accepted a case from Wisconsin, where a divided panel of three federal judges last year ruled last year that the state’s Republican leadership in 2011 pushed through a plan so partisan that it violated the Constitution’s First Amendment and equal rights protections.
The issue will be briefed and argued in the Supreme Court term that begins in October.
The justices gave themselves a bit of an out: they said they will further consider their jurisdiction over the case when it is heard on its merits.
The court’s action comes at a time when the relatively obscure subject of reapportionment has taken on new significance, with many blaming the drawing of safely partisan seats for a polarized and gridlocked Congress. Former president Barack Obama has said that one of his post-presidency projects will be to combat partisan gerrymanders after the 2020 Census.
Both parties draw congressional and legislative districts to their own advantage–a challenge to a congressional plan drawn by Maryland Democrats is making its way through the courts.
But Republicans have more to lose because they control so many more state legislatures. The Republican National Committee and a dozen large Republican states have asked the court to reverse the Wisconsin decision.
That state’s legislative leaders asked the Supreme Court in their brief to reject any effort that “wrests control of districting away from the state legislators to whom the state constitution assigns that task, and hands it to federal judges and opportunistic plaintiffs seeking to accomplish in court what they failed to achieve at the ballot box.”
But the dozen plaintiffs–voters across the state–said the evidence laid out in a trial in the Wisconsin case showed that “Republican legislative leaders authorized a secretive and exclusionary mapmaking process aimed at securing for their party a large advantage that would persist no matter what happened in future elections.”
In the election following adoption of the new maps, Republicans got just 48.6 percent of the statewide vote, but captured a 60-to-39 seat advantage in the State Assembly.
The head of a group representing the plaintiffs in the Wisconsin case welcomed the court’s decision to consider it.