Jan. 16, 2018 — Late last week, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear the Texas Republicans’ appeal of a San Antonio three-judge panel’s ruling that declared two of the state’s districts: TX-27 (Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi) and TX-35 (Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin) unconstitutional for racial gerrymandering reasons.
Though we have now entered the decade’s fourth election cycle, we see four separate gerrymandering cases from the 2011 redistricting cycle still before the nation’s high court. It’s possible the top judicial panel has agreed to hear these cases, two brought by Republicans and two by Democrats, in order to make clear redistricting statements before the 2020 census sends us into the next full national redistricting cycle, a 50-state procedure that will consume most of 2021.
The major lawsuit that the court has already heard but has not yet announced a ruling, is the Wisconsin political gerrymandering case. There, Democrats claimed majority Republicans discriminated against them when the lines were drawn for partisan political reasons. The Supreme Court has never before ruled that political gerrymandering is unconstitutional. It is unknown exactly when the court’s ruling will be announced, but it is a virtual certainty that the release date will come before the current term ends at the end of June.
For the second time in two consecutive election cycles, the North Carolina lines have been invalidated. The congressional boundaries were re-drawn before the 2016 election for racial gerrymandering reasons. Now, the Democrats are returning with their political gerrymandering case. In the last re-draw, the state’s 10R-3D congressional delegation partisan ratio remained in tact.
Previously, the court also agreed to hear the Maryland Republicans’ claim that the state’s 6th District (Rep. John Delaney, D-Potomac) is politically gerrymandered.
In Wisconsin and Texas, the Supreme Court granted the two states a stay of the lower court rulings that invalidated the lines. No such motion came in Maryland because the state won the lower court ruling there, so the Republican plaintiffs are asking that their rejection be overturned. The state of North Carolina has also moved to stay the latest court ruling affecting their congressional and state legislative boundaries that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear, and a ruling could potentially come as early as this week on that particular motion.
Last week, a Pennsylvania federal court ruled against the Democratic plaintiffs who claimed that the state’s 13R-5D map is a political gerrymander. But, Democrats have also filed a similar case in state court saying that the congressional map drawers, and those for the state House and Senate, engaged in political gerrymandering under the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In that case, the Democratic-controlled Pennsylvania State Supreme Court will be the eventual final arbiter.
The Wisconsin case appears to be the key to unraveling these competing case decisions, since the briefing and oral argument process has already been completed and only a final ruling awaits. How this will affect the remaining cases in Maryland, North Carolina, Texas, and possibly Pennsylvania, remains to be seen and will depend upon exactly what the court determines for Wisconsin.
Therefore, at this point in time, since the stays have been granted, the lower court rulings invalidating specific districts in Wisconsin and Texas are no longer in effect. If the court overturns the Wisconsin lower court ruling, then it is quite possible that none of the states’ maps before the high court will be redrawn. Pennsylvania is in a different situation because they still have a live case within the state judicial system, which could result in a re-draw before the 2018 election.
A victory for Democrats in Wisconsin will likely lead to a re-draw in that state, and the others with live cases previously mentioned will also likely be forced to create new maps. Such a ruling will likely open the door for further such cases from many states as both Democrats and Republicans will then be making political gerrymandering arguments in the places where they are in minority status.
Much more will soon be forthcoming on this important issue.