Today, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will hear oral argument this fall in Gill v. Whitford, offering the Justices their first opportunity in more than a decade to weigh in on the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering. The case could impact congressional maps in around half a dozen states and legislative maps in about ten states and have major implications for the next round of redistricting after the 2020 Census.
The highly anticipated case stems from a 2016 ruling by a three-judge federal panel that struck down the Wisconsin’s 2011 state assembly plan as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander that violated both the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The panel’s decision marked the first time in more than three decades that a federal court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in a partisan-gerrymandering suit following a full trial.
“Wisconsin’s gerrymander was one of the most aggressive of the decade, locking in a large and implausibly stable majority for Republicans in what is otherwise a battleground state,” said Thomas Wolf, redistricting counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “It’s a symptom of politics going haywire and something that we increasingly see when one party has sole control of the redistricting process.”
Wisconsin’s maps reliably delivered massive Republican majorities. In 2012, Republicans won 60 of the 99 seats in the Wisconsin Assembly despite winning only 48.6% of the two-party state-wide vote; in 2014, they won 63 seats with only 52% of the state-wide vote. The court concluded that the distributions of Democrat and Republican voters throughout the state are not responsible for the Republican Party’s electoral advantage.
The Supreme Court has considered partisan gerrymandering in the past, but the Justices failed to agree on a standard for policing abuses when the issue was last before them in the early 2000s. Whitford gives the Court its first look at the issue since then and an opportunity to finally set some limits on excessive partisanship in redistricting.
“Whitford comes at a critical juncture. Having a remedy for partisan gerrymandering is very important, especially in the South where race and politics are increasingly joined at the hip,” said Michael Li senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, “A rule against partisan gerrymandering will have a major impact for communities of color, where partisanship unfortunately has often been used as an excuse for actions that hurt minorities.”
“This is a historic opportunity to address one of the biggest problems facing our electoral system,” said Wendy Weiser director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, “Gerrymandering has become so aggressive, extreme, and effective that there is an urgent need for the Supreme Court to finally step in and set boundaries.”
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