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SCOTUS: Courts have no role in regulating partisan gerrymandering

Thursday, Jun 27, 2019 - Posted by Rich Miller

* AP

The Supreme Court says federal courts have no role to play in policing political districts drawn for partisan gain. The decision could embolden political line-drawing for partisan gain when state lawmakers undertake the next round of redistricting following the 2020 census.

The justices said by a 5-4 vote on Thursday that claims of partisan gerrymandering do not belong in federal court. The court’s conservative, Republican-appointed majority says that voters and elected officials should be the arbiters of what is a political dispute.

The court rejected challenges to Republican-drawn congressional districts in North Carolina and a Democratic district in Maryland. […]

Chief Justice John Roberts said for the majority that the districting plans “are highly partisan by any measure.” But he said courts are the wrong place to settle these disputes.

* New York Times

The drafters of the Constitution, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority, understood that politics would play a role in drawing election districts when they gave the task to state legislatures. Judges, the chief justice said, are not entitled to second-guess lawmakers’ judgments.

* WaPo

Justice Elena Kagan dissented for the court’s liberals. “For the first time ever, this court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities,” she wrote.

Kagan underscored her disagreement by reading a lengthy excerpt of her dissent from the bench.

While the Supreme Court regularly scrutinizes electoral districts for racial gerrymandering, the justices have never found a state’s redistricting map so infected with politics that it violates the Constitution. Such a decision would have marked a dramatic change for how the nation’s political maps are drawn.

More here.

…Adding… Tribune

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, in his 2018 campaign pledged to veto a gerrymandered map if he received one from the Democratic-controlled legislature. He also cited his support for an independent map process and even donated $50,000 to a citizens’ initiative movement in 2014.

But with veto-proof supermajorities of Democrats in the Illinois House and Senate, Republicans were skeptical about potential action by the majority party following the high court’s ruling Thursday.

State Rep. Tom Demmer of Dixon, the House deputy GOP leader, issued a tweet that said, “Only ‘big decision’ here is whether the House and Senate Democrats will override Gov. Pritzker’s veto of a partisan gerrymandered map — which he publicly pledged to veto.”

CHANGE Illinois, which had been a leading proponent of the citizens’ initiative remap effort, issued a statement calling the court’s decision “disheartening” and looked to Pritzker to “live up” to his pledge for fair representation.

I was asked at my City Club speech last December how long I expected the honeymoon to last between Gov. Pritzker and Speaker Madigan. If I recall correctly, I said that Madigan’s spokesman Steve Brown told me he figured it would last until it was time to draw the new maps.


  1. - Steve - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 9:56 am:

    If you don’t like the leadership of the Democratic party in Illinois drawing the map the way it is: vote them out of office . Don’t expect the U.S. Supreme Court or some unelected federal judge to draw you a map.

  2. - 47th Ward - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 9:57 am:

    ===“For the first time ever, this court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities,”===

    It’s a stunning and radical ruling. I’m glad that this court wasn’t serving when Brown V. Board was decided. Roberts might have said that separate but equal was okee-dokee, just like the Founders wanted.

    When political maneuvering denies some equal representation, that’s a legal problem and it requires a legal solution. I don’t think history will look kindly on our current political era. I really hope we’re near the bottom.

  3. - Perrid - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 9:59 am:

    “Vote them out of office”. Uh, dude, do you not understand that gerrymandering makes it harder TO vote them out of office? That is the whole point, politicians are grabbing more power for themselves and making it harder to hold them accountable for it.

  4. - Fax Machine - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:03 am:

    Federal Courts have no role. State courts could still have a role. In Pennsylvania the Commonwealth Supreme Court struck down a partisan map because of provisions in the Pennsylvania Constitution

  5. - Liandro - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:16 am:

    Gerrymandering undermines the very foundation of a representative government. I think the Supremes are abdicating responsibility here–they should be a check on this abuse of power by another branch.

  6. - Unpopular - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:16 am:

    This was the last hope for Illinois conservatives to ever have a seat at the table again. The final nail has been driven.

  7. - Just Me 2 - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:17 am:

    Mixed morning for the Madigan dynasty. More hear from the feds, but who cares as long as they get to keep their corrupt maps.

  8. - OutOfState - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:18 am:

    To be more specific, the Court decision states that while they agree that there are partisan gerrymanders that are unacceptable, the failure of any plaintiff to provide a precise legal principle that would identify illegal gerrymanders means the decision is not for the courts to make at all. Since some partisan gerrymandering /is/ legal, it is unreasonable to ask the judiciary to make decisions about whether a map is legal without someone else providing a line, given that judges should not be making decisions intended to be made by (partisan) legislators.

  9. - OutOfState - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:20 am:

    I don’t agree with gerrymandering at all, but saying “we can’t make the rules giving ourselves power over which maps we like” isn’t incredibly unreasonable for the Court. I think this reinforces the need for organizing on the state level to pass laws forbidding partisan gerrymandering.

  10. - Anyone Remember - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:23 am:

    As bad as Citizens United, Bush v. Gore, Buckley v. Valeo. Only thing worse would be Plessy v. Ferguson, Dred Scott.

  11. - Interested - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:24 am:

    Solid ruling. Now, go back and correct the err in Elrond/Rutan as well.

  12. - Interested - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:24 am:


  13. - ZC - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:25 am:

    We still don’t have a knock-down measurement of what a partisan gerrymander even is. Illinois is a pretty good Rorshach test here - in terms of the “efficiency gap,” one of the best metrics of gerrymandering proposed, IL is NOT very gerrymandered, but try convincing Republicans in this state of that. And while the “efficiency gap” seems like one of the best metrics out there, where to set it, and when to implement it, still feels a bit arbitrary as a Constitutional principle, and I can see why the Supremes were leery of embedding it there.

    Closing the door entirely on partisan gerrymandering appeals however - saying in effect, “We’ll never figure this out” - seems like overkill, too. But, really, this decision is ripe for reconsideration. Stare decisis today is about as secure as aldermanic prerogative in Chicago.

  14. - Just Me 2 - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:26 am:

    Steve- how exactly do we vote the leadership out when they run the process by which they are elected?

  15. - Steve - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:28 am:

    - ZC -

    If someone doesn’t like the Illinois map : take it to the state courts. At least you can vote the Illinois Supreme Court out of office. You can’t do that with federal judges.

  16. - Amalia - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:28 am:

    the very end of the Kagan statement where she says “with great sadness” was talked about on msnbc as an unusual use of words. that is how strongly she felt.

  17. - Steve - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:31 am:

    - Just Me 2 -

    Do you really want an unelected federal judge (appointed by a Republican president) with lifetime tenure determining how the map is drawn in Illinois ? Is that fair to the voters of Illinois?

  18. - Oswego Willy - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:33 am:

    ===appointed by a Republican president===

    Speaks volumes about you.

    So no decision has at its basis the rule of law?

    Might as well call the judicial system corrupt.

  19. - brickle - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:35 am:

    tragic ruling, and a deep blow to democracy

  20. - PJ - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:37 am:

    ==So no decision has at its basis the rule of law?

    Might as well call the judicial system corrupt.==

    Don’t be naive. Judges aren’t somehow removed from the realm of politics. In cases like this, they reach a decision and then work backwards to come up with a reason. Unless you think that the 5 Republican-appointed justices all arrived at the conclusion which clearly favors Republicans by studious jurisprudence, while the Democratic appointees all fell on the opposite side. What a coincidence.

  21. - brickle - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:38 am:

    - Anyone Remember -, you forgot Shelby County as another gut shot to voting rights from Roberts.

    Steve, relying on political electoral remedies to extreme gerrymandering sort of misses the main point that the districts get drawn by partisans so that they can’t be held democratically accountable.

  22. - Grand Avenue - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:38 am:

    For What it’s worth, the 7th Circuit is overwhelmingly Republican appointees. 9 out of the 11 active judges were appointed by Republican Presidents, as well as all 3 Senior Judges

  23. - Oswego Willy - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:39 am:

    ===Don’t be naive===

    I’m not naive, I’d like the phony anger to go full…

    “The judicial system is corrupt because there are decisions I don’t like”

    See, that’s at least fun, lol

  24. - ZC - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:39 am:


    I basically don’t disagree, and you can also vote for judges in our neighbor to the north, Wisconsin, where you really do see a majority of the state vote going to the Democratic party and the Republican party holding onto the state legislature (something, again, that you don’t see it in IL - Democrats win a lot of seats here, but the problem for the GOP is Democrats also win a lot of votes).

    In WI however Democrats just missed a golden opportunity to flip a Supreme Court seat and maybe launch their own state legislative challenge. Or maybe it’s more that the Wisconsin GOP is much better organized and battle-tested than its counterpart here in Illinois.

  25. - DIstant watcher - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:39 am:

    @Anyone Remember: Buckley a bad decision? On par with the others? It’s because of Buckley that we get to see campaign finance reports. Slow your roll, there, pardner.

  26. - Al - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:40 am:

    At the rate Precidents are being over turned can a Poll tax be far behind?

  27. - OutOfState - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:47 am:

    ===At the rate Precidents are being over turned can a Poll tax be far behind?===

    Not unless the Supreme Court decides they can just change the Constitution on demand…

    (See the 24th Amendment)

  28. - Dear Jurisprudence - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:47 am:

    This is exactly the correct decision. Judges and their hired redistricting “consultants” shouldn’t be able to second guess those elected to engage in the redistricting process so long as the process is a fair one and follows Federal and State law. 2018 showed that Dems can win in Congressional Districts drawn to heavily favor Republicans. Gerrymandering, whether legislative or judicial, is problematic for different reasons. Glad the Supreme Court kept judges in their lane when it comes to political decisions.

  29. - Steve - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:49 am:


    It’s not about judges being corrupt : it’s about having government by judiciary.

  30. - Oswego Willy - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:50 am:

    ===It’s not about judges being corrupt===

    Then the decision has legal merit, you just disagree?

  31. - Anyone Remember - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:53 am:

    DIstant watcher -
    Buckley v. Valeo “A majority of judges held that limits on election spending in the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 §608 are unconstitutional.” That opened the floodgates to unlimited spending.

  32. - Da Lobsta - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:56 am:

    I’d be more okay with this ruling if it weren’t for Citizens United.

  33. - Roman - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:59 am:

    While I don’t discount the pure partisan nature of the decision, I’m with @ZC on this one. Having the federal courts examine each and every legislative reapportionment — from a tiny town council to California’s congressional map — for signs of excessive political gerrymandering would be daunting. Tools like the “efficiency gap” would have helped, but still, we’re talking about tons of potential litigation.

    Interesting that Roberts went the opposite direction on the census citizenship question case, which also has huge redistricting implications. Add this to Roberts’ ACA decision as another conscious move to protect his court from being seen as a collection of partisan hacks. He’s got his work cut out for him.

  34. - Lester Holt’s Mustache - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 10:59 am:

    This ruling might be a good thing in the long term, if as OutofState says, it leads to better organizing as well as competing in areas that state parties usually write off. Put it to the voters at the state level whether or not gerrymandering is a good thing. Lots of voters think politicians ignore them or don’t care about them. Blaming that on gerrymandering might be easier than you’d think

  35. - Steve - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 11:00 am:

    I don’t see how the U.S. Supreme Court can get involved in something like this, I don’t see how they could rule any other way. Now, if the Maryland Supreme Court has a problem with the map it’s up to them to decide based on their state laws.

  36. - Mittuns - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 11:04 am:

    We need a voter’s bill of rights: nonpartisan maps, eliminating big money in campaigns, clean elections public financing, proportional representation in the legislature, eliminate the electoral college, implement a condensed election season, and substantive debates.

  37. - Person 8 - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 11:20 am:

    After this Democrats better gerrymander Illinois into huge split, making it so egregious Conservatives have no one to blame but themselves.

  38. - Seats - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 11:23 am:

    SCOTUS also ruled against the citizenship question on the census. Should make it easier for Illinois to capture a more accurate picture on its numbers.

  39. - SWIL Voter - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 11:24 am:

    I used to support a Fair Map in Illinois. Not anymore. Gerrymandering overwhelmingly benefits Republicans in this country. If SCOTUS is giving the green light, Dems better use what opportunities they have to gerrymander Republican representation out of existence. There are few choices left

  40. - Glenn - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 11:30 am:

    Meddling in elections might be defined as the changing of election results without the inconvenience of needing to change the minds of voters.

    Ideally an election should enable voters to choose their representatives but should not have “representatives” enabled to choose their voters.

    Those who are elected through the process of choosing their voters should in all honesty forgo the name “representative”.

    And how can party meddling in elections be eliminated through elections that have been meddled with by parties?

  41. - The Dude Abides - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 11:33 am:

    As has been said more than a few times on this board elections have consequences. If Hillary had defeated Trump maybe she could have gotten a couple people of her choice on the SCOTUS. Then again she still would have had a GOP majority in the Senate including the Judiciary Committee to deal with.
    There have been several ideas floated in recent years on who would have input on redrawing Illinois’s Districts. The thing is, when you have people involved in those decisions you are going to have some biases.

  42. - OutOfState - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 11:35 am:

    ===SCOTUS also ruled against the citizenship question on the census. Should make it easier for Illinois to capture a more accurate picture on its numbers.===

    As long as opponents can keep it off. Today’s decision punted the case back to Commerce and lower courts. However, it was a good sign that the Court (or at least Roberts and the libs) was willing to admit that there was clear pretext in adding the question. Hopefully the lower courts can bring the analysis by the deceased GOP consultant into evidence to add more ammo against, at least until October when the census forms need to be printed.

  43. - A guy - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 11:41 am:

    SCOTUS, sometimes it Roars, sometimes it meows. I hate our map process in Illinois. Having said that, I’m really not confident that a federal mandate would materially fix it. In fact I think it wouldn’t and the creatives would simply get more creative. The Feds are too far away and 50 states are too many to arbitrate a fairer process with any effectiveness. The state could and should do this. This gerrymandering process happens everywhere it “can” happen. The Feds can and should decide that our state should have 2 Hispanic Congressional Districts. That’s long overdue. The idea that it could eliminate one of the 3 AA districts has been an unfair compromise.

    This court is an interesting one. Pleasantly less predictable in some ways. But, reasoned for sure. I’m fascinated by the opinions and the dissents.
    47, your comment is interesting. Enjoyed reading it.

  44. - Sue - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 11:43 am:

    It was amusing listening to Jeff Toobin on CNN complain how the ruling only locks in R office holders. Don’t liberal talking heads recognize both parties gerrymander. I guess CNN has never heard of Madiganstan.

  45. - 47th Ward - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 11:47 am:

    ===SCOTUS also ruled against the citizenship question on the census===

    If you only read some headlines, you might get that impression. If you read the decision, they most certainly did not rule against the citizenship question. They sent it back for a new argument by the Justice Department.

    DOJ got a “do-over.” That is far different from ruling against it.

  46. - SWIL Voter - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 11:48 am:

    Sue, in general more states are gerrymandered for Republicans than for Democrats. Many Democratic states have already instituted Fair Maps. The red states have not exactly followed suit. There are of course exceptions like Maryland and Illinois, but in general Toobin is correct

  47. - DIstant watcher - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 11:59 am:

    @Anyone Remember: If your goal is to prohibit people from talking about candidates, then Buckley is indeed a problem. But for many, it did a lot of good.

  48. - lakeside - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 12:13 pm:

    What’s so tough about this ruling is that I am very pro-fair map for Illinois, but it makes it hard for me to advocate for that (even to myself) when it’s a free for all elsewhere.

  49. - Six Degrees of Separation - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 12:24 pm:

    ===in general more states are gerrymandered for Republicans than for Democrats===

    And much of this is temporal, with the current state of R vs. D governorships and state houses. The tide will turn once again. I do agree that the ideal in all states is proportional districts balanced by reasonable geography and population demographics, and some states have done it better than others.

  50. - Not a Billionaire - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 12:38 pm:

    Actually Madigan did a terrible job. Dems don’t have that many more seats than their vote. WI and MI are about 50 50 and have way more republicans.

  51. - Candy Dogood - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 12:43 pm:

    ===The tide will turn once again.===

    Such confidence based off of presuming a historical trend is a repeating pattern.

  52. - NeverPoliticallyCorrect - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 12:46 pm:

    While I understand the reasoning for the decision I still believe it ignores the constitutional language of compact and contiguous for districts. there are very few districts that by reasonable and commonly accepted definitions would fit that description. Instead politicians continue to engage in mapping that encourages increased tribalism in this country. Tribes that go beyond just party preference. We create racial districts, language districts, ethnicity districts just to name a few. So what we end up doing is telling people that our differences are more important than our similarities. that we all want safe towns, access to jobs, good schools, good government. This decision will only go to reinforce the tribalization of our country. So sad.

  53. - FP_J - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 12:51 pm:

    Perhaps it is time to start considering party-list proportional representation, at least at the state level. It does away with the maps entirely. I don’t fully understand the mechanic, but I believe versions of this include some kind of placed-based representation.

  54. - CapnCrunch - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 1:06 pm:

    “Gerrymandering overwhelmingly benefits Republicans in this country. “

    Right. Just look at the results of the election last November.

  55. - RNUG - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 1:20 pm:

    I think -Fax Machine- got it right. Gerrymandering / drawing districts is a State problem; let either the political process or the State courts sort it out.

  56. - SWIL Voter - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 1:28 pm:

    Capn, can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic, but 2018 definitely does highlight it. Just two examples, in North Carolina, Republicans win 51% of votes and got 77% of legislative seats. In Wisconsin, Dems won 190,000 more votes but only ended up with 36% of seats. There in WI, Dems have to outperform Republicans by like 9 points to have a prayer at a legislative majority. Just outrageous

  57. - 47th Ward - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 2:12 pm:

    ===Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, in his 2018 campaign pledged to veto a gerrymandered map===

    And SCOTUS just gave him the political cover to abandon that promise.

  58. - Quibbler - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 2:16 pm:

    If Illinois Democrats were smart, they’d take this as a green light to gerrymander as many Rs as possible out of Congress, and shore up IL-6 and IL-14 so those districts will be electing Democrats until at least the 2030s.

  59. - brickle - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 3:10 pm:

    Yeah, draw the map with every district having long tentacles to Chicago and the ‘burbs. Eliminate every red seat. Close down every polling place but one in all GOP-friendly counties, and give it a single voting machine. Purge rolls in a manner targeted at likely GOP voters.

    Fair’s fair.

  60. - Leatherneck - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 3:37 pm:

    - Quibbler - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 2:16 pm:

    If Illinois Democrats were smart, they’d take this as a green light to gerrymander as many Rs as possible out of Congress, and shore up IL-6 and IL-14 so those districts will be electing Democrats until at least the 2030s.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if one of those D shore-ups for IL-14 to help Underwood would be to add DeKalb and Rockford to the district (and maybe perhaps all the way to Freeport).

  61. - anon2 - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 3:50 pm:

    My question for Illinois Republicans is whether their opposition to gerrymandering here applies to states the GOP controls? Is it always wrong, or does it depend which party is in charge?

  62. - ZC - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 4:19 pm:

    If Republicans really want to get back in the fight politically, they should make a big show of fighting the progressive income tax amendment , but then make sure it passes.

    There’s nothing better they can hope for to get them back in the game in the Cook County suburbs and collars.

  63. - Powdered Whig - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 4:46 pm:

    I am a Democrat and I agree with this decision. It may not be the popular decision, but it is legally correct. There is no constitutional right for political parties to have a certain amount of representation. Nor are political parties monoliths even though the cable news media tries to make them so. Nowhere is there a better example than Illinois. The Democratic Party is a diverse bunch with people that fall on different sites of all sorts of issues. If you stripped away the names and parties of targeted legislators and just looked at their voting records on key issues, many people would not be able to guess the legislator’s political party correctly.

    This benefits the Democrats here in Illinois and Republicans in other places. in the end, however, if voters want to eliminate partisan gerrymanders, do it through the political process.

  64. - Lucky Pierre - Thursday, Jun 27, 19 @ 5:18 pm:

    And yet Illinois Democrats still believe the Roberts court will overturn Roe vs Wade. I don’t see a lot of difference between Roberts and Kennedy

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