Redistricting Round-Up: Blockbuster SCOTUS Term Ahead, Win in Ohio

November 23, 2015

A Blockbuster SCOTUS Term for Redistricting

This is shaping up to be a blockbuster redistricting term for the Supreme Court. After hearing one redistricting case in November, the high court is slated to hear several more in the coming months that could dramatically alter the redistricting landscape.

The most closely watched of the group, Evenwel v. Abbott, which will be heard on December 8, has the Court revisiting the question of malapportionment for the first time since the 1960s. Today, every state draws districts using some form of total population — an approach with long roots in the nation’s redistricting history and practice. Challengers in Texas, though, say the Court should change the rule to require legislative districts be drawn to equalize the number of eligible voters rather than inhabitants. They argue that Texas’s maps are unconstitutional because the high concentration of non-citizens (and children) in urban parts of Texas means some Latino districts have many fewer voters than non-Latino ones.

A ruling for the Texas challengers would fundamentally alter redistricting and political representation in the United States and make it more difficult to draw majority-minority districts. It could also shift political power away from urban and suburban areas that have high numbers of children. That prospect has many watching the case with considerable unease.

Click here to RSVP to a Brennan Center briefing on the Evenwel case on December 3 in Washington, D.C.

Other Cases to Watch:

  • Harris v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission – Also on December 8, the Court will hear a case that will decide whether a state can vary the size of legislative districts to comply with the Voting Rights Act — or to favor a political party. Like EvenwelHarris could have significant ramifications both for the future of voting rights and partisan gerrymandering. 
  • Wittman v. Personhuballah – The Supreme Court also recently agreed to hear a case concerning Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District. Federal courts have repeatedly struck down the district map as an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. State officials are no longer defending the map, but the plan’s Republican architects have asserted standing and asked the Supreme Court to decide the issue. The Court will hear the case, including the question of standing, early next year. 
  • Shapiro v. Mack – On November 4, the high court considered the vital, if more technical, issue of when a three-judge panel must be convened in redistricting cases. The case arises out of a dispute about partisan gerrymandering in Maryland, and may give the court a chance to express an opinion on the future viability of partisan gerrymandering claims. Indeed, during oral argument, Justice Breyer commented that the case raised “about as important a question as you can imagine.” A decision is expected early next year.

Ohio Win Builds Momentum for Redistricting Reform

Ohio voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment overhauling how state legislative districts are drawn, a move that may bolster redistricting reform efforts across the country.

The amendment creates a seven-member bipartisan commission consisting of the governor, secretary of state, state auditor, and one member appointed by each leader in the state legislature. It also creates new rules to govern mapdrawing in Ohio, including an express and judicially enforceable provision to prohibit partisan gerrymandering, as well as a requirement to try to draw districts so the number of seats each party is likely to win mirrors its share of the statewide vote.

Ohio’s success may boost other reform efforts elsewhere in 2016. In Illinois and South Dakota, reformers have collected enough signatures to place amendments to create independent redistricting commissions on the 2016 ballot. Next door, Indiana continues to study whether to create its own redistricting commission and reformers are urging the state to follow Ohio’s lead.

Other News and Analysis:

  • The epic redistricting fight in Florida continues. After several rounds of back-and-forth between the legislature and courts, Leon County Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds rejectedthe state Senate’s request to have an expert draw maps, instead setting a trial date for December 14-18. The repeated failures to create an acceptable district map have led some lawmakers, including for the first time Republicans, to call for an independent redistricting commission.
  • Maryland’s Redistricting Reform Commission, established earlier this year by Gov. Larry Hogan (R), recently released its report recommending that the state create an independent, nonpartisan redistricting commission to draw congressional and state legislative districts.
  • Democratic lawmakers in New Jersey are considering an amendment to update the process used for redrawing state legislative lines. Details of the plan have not been released, but some say the changes would be designed to increase partisan fairness based on past election results.
  • The National Journal examined the partisan gerrymandering theory developed by Nicholas Stephanopoulos and Eric McGhee, called the efficiency gap. The theory is being tested in court for the first time in Wisconsin in Whitford v. Nichol.
  • A new report by the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas shows “cautious optimism” for the future of Austin’s 10-1 system of geographic representation. The report is based on 172 interviews with residents to gauge civic engagement and confidence in the city government structure, as well as areas for improvement.