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The nationwide battle over gerrymandering is far from over

The nationwide battle over gerrymandering is far from over

The court’s ruling not only raises the stakes for legislative elections, it also heightens the importance of securing liberal or conservative majorities on state high courts. | Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images legal The nationwide battle over gerrymandering is far from over Thursday's Supreme Court ruling merely moves the battlefield to the states. By STEVEN SHEPARD and…


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The court’s ruling not only raises the stakes for legislative elections, it also heightens the importance of securing liberal or conservative majorities on state high courts. | Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

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The nationwide battle over gerrymandering is far from over

Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling merely moves the battlefield to the states.

The Supreme Court’s ruling Thursday that federal courts have no business deciding how much partisan gerrymandering is too much didn’t end the fight over how politicians draw political lines — it just moved the battlefield.

Democrats and reformers wanted the high court to set standards for when politically-motivated map-making goes too far. Instead, justices accelerated the race between the two parties to tilt the system to their advantage by electing as many governors and legislators as possible or, in some states, getting voters to support ballot measures to take the redistricting process out of politicians’ hands by 2021.

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That’s when states will redraw their maps to conform to the 2020 census — now, without a worry that federal courts will throw them out for being excessively partisan.

But this is hardly the end of the story.

While the justices closed off filing legal challenges to gerrymandering in federal courts, they explicitly said those lawsuits are still fair game in state courts. It was there that Democratic-aligned plaintiffs successfully demolished Pennsylvania’s GOP-drawn congressional map before the 2018 elections.

“We’ll be fighting in the states to ensure that we have a fair redistricting process,” said Eric Holder, the former attorney general, who is now the chair of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. “We will use the state courts where we are no longer able to use the federal courts.”

That means the high court’s ruling not only raises the stakes for legislative elections, it also heightens the importance of securing liberal or conservative majorities on state high courts, whether they are appointed by governors or directly elected by voters. Because the U.S. Supreme Court has a limited role in overseeing how state supreme courts interpret state laws, those state judges could become the final authority determining which maps stand or fall after the next round of nationwide redistricting.

The new importance of state courts will be on full display next month in North Carolina, where Democratic-linked plaintiffs allege GOP state legislators violated state law in drawing the congressional map. While the Supreme Court’s decision Thursday preserved North Carolina’s GOP-drawn congressional map, Democrats can now take a similar case to the state Supreme Court. Six of the seven justices on that court ran as Democrats.

“We believe that this is a fruitful avenue,” said Kathay Feng, the national redistricting director at Common Cause, the good-government group that brought the North Carolina litigation to overturn the map.

Republicans expect Democratic groups to pick up the strategy and unleash it across the country after the 2020 census, after their success in Pennsylvania and the attempt in North Carolina.

majority opinion. He mentioned Florida’s “Fair Districts” amendments to the state constitution, which state courts used to throw out that state’s congressional maps in 2015 after finding GOP lawmakers violated the amendment’s prohibitions against any political consideration in redistricting.

Roberts also cited amendments to state constitutions approved by voters in Colorado and Michigan in the 2018 midterms that created redistricting commissions. Voters in Ohio also approved a proposal earlier in 2018 to give the minority party in the legislature more power in the redistricting process moving forward.

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Eric Holder

  • Pennsylvania
  • U.S. Supreme Court
  • Redistricting
  • Census
  • Gerrymandering
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