WASHINGTON — In a blockbuster opinion issued by the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday, a 5-4 majority ruled that it’s not their place to settle disputes over partisan gerrymandering.
On the last day of its current term, the court decided two combined high-profile cases that asked them to rule on whether state legislators in Maryland and North Carolina went too far in including political considerations when redrawing congressional districts in their states.
Thursday’s ruling impacts other states that had previously brought gerrymandering cases to the Supreme Court, including Ohio and Michigan. Michigan’s legislative maps will now remain in place until the 2021 launch of the state’s independent redistricting commission, which voters approved with Proposal 2 in 2018.
Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told the Advance last month that she believed SCOTUS would rule on Michigan’s case.
“The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision today closes a vital door for citizens seeking recourse in a fundamental part of our representative democracy,” she said Thursday.
Chief Justice John Roberts led the court’s conservative majority, saying in his opinion that the gerrymandering lawsuits “present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.”
He was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
The court’s conservative wing wrote that judicial interference in the process would be an “unprecedented expansion of judicial power,” and that it would lead to court intervention “unlimited in scope and duration — it would recur over and over again around the country with each new round of districting.”
The North Carolina plaintiffs in the case complained that the state’s redistricting plan discriminated against Democrats, while the Maryland plaintiffs argued that their state’s map discriminated against Republicans.
The court’s liberal wing issued a scathing dissent penned by Justice Elena Kagan.
“For the first time ever, this Court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities,” she wrote.
“And not just any constitutional violation. The partisan gerrymanders in these cases deprived citizens of the most fundamental of their constitutional rights: the rights to participate equally in the political process, to join with others to advance political beliefs, and to choose their political representatives.”
Kagan was joined in the dissent by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.
The decision follows, and supersedes, a federal court ruling in April that ordered Michigan to redraw its congressional map ahead of the 2020 elections. Legislative Republicans appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which issued a stay as it worked out Thursday’s ruling.
The ruling means that Michigan’s legislative maps at both the state and federal level will remain the same for the 2020 election, avoiding a potential legislative scramble and a slew of special elections in the state Senate.
Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) said the “Supreme Court did the right thing upholding the will of the voters and leaving state policy decisions to the people of Michigan and their elected representatives.”
Amber McCann, spokeswoman for the Michigan Senate Republicans echoed his sentiments.
“Today’s ruling suggests that a federal court should not be in the business of redrawing Michigan’s Senate maps mid-term, as we have argued all along,” she said in a statement. “However, our case is still pending and we await action from the Supreme Court regarding Michigan.”
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called the ruling “disappointing.
“Michiganders deserve to have their voices heard and their votes counted. Gerrymandering undermines the basic idea of open and free elections — regardless of political affiliation,” she said in a statement. “It’s disappointing that the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to review this unfair practice, despite several other courts declaring partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional.”
Both Whitmer and Benson said the ruling shows the importance of voters opting for an independent redistricting process to ensure fairness.
Under the terms of last year’s Proposal 2, independently chosen redistricting commissions will redraw the state’s maps ahead of the 2022 elections. Michigan is widely expected to lose a congressional seat in the wake of the 2020 Census.
Nancy Wang, the executive director of the nonprofit Voters Not Politicians that spearheaded Proposal 2, said in a statement that her group is “dismayed that the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to protect the millions of voters across the country whose constitutional rights are violated by extreme partisan gerrymandering.
“Michiganders showed that gerrymandering is an issue that impacts all voters, whether we are Republicans, Democrats, Independents or third party supporters,” she continued. “These anti-democratic practices have run rampant, and today’s decision will only further embolden politicians in the next redistricting cycle. Voters have had enough.”
Wang added that the group is planning to work with partner organizations in other states to ensure a fair redistricting process after the 2020 Census.
Various federal and local officials in Michigan also weighed in on Thursday’s ruling.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) said that it showed the need for the U.S. Senate to take up voting rights legislation introduced earlier this year as House Resolution 1, which passed the lower chamber in March.
“Today’s decision is a sad day for our democracy. Federal courts have always been the best venue to remedy constitutional concerns, including the fundamental right to vote and the right to equal protection under the law,” Dingell said.
“By punting this decision to Congress and state legislatures, the Court has ensured that existing partisan gerrymanders will remain in place and people’s right to participate in free and fair elections is only further diluted. While I disagree with the Court’s ruling in this case, this only makes it clearer that Congress needs to act.”
Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, a Democratic former state House member, said the ruling was “disheartening.
“As the ranking Democrat on the Michigan House of Representatives Committee on Redistricting and Elections in 2011, the Committee that developed Michigan’s partisan maps, I saw firsthand how politicians chose their voters,” she said Thursday.