Vicious battles ahead after court OKs partisan gerrymandering
For several years, the Supreme Court has signaled that it is troubled by the amount of partisan, political maneuvering surrounding the congressional redistricting process. But in its latest voting rights case, the court upheld most of a controversial Texas redistricting plan, in a ruling that handed a major victory to the Republican Party and may lead to more bitter redistricting fights in the future.
The case was not a complete victory for Republicans or for the architect of the redistricting plan, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. The court held that the rare mid-decade redistricting, which increased the Texas Republican congressional delegation by six seats, failed to protect minority voters. In a 5-to-4 ruling, the court struck down one district near Laredo, Texas, under the 1965 Voting Rights Act because it diluted the voting strength of Hispanics. A federal court in Texas will now redraw the boundaries of that and surrounding districts.
But the court, in six opinions spanning 123 pages, rejected the broader challenge to the Texas plan, holding that there is nothing inherently unconstitutional about redrawing congressional maps in the middle of the decade in order to give one party a political advantage. The ruling opens the door for state lawmakers to redraw congressional maps whenever there is a shift in political power, instead of after the federal census at the start of each decade, as has been customary.
The ruling was a disappointment for reformers who hoped the court would rein in partisan gerrymandering, which has been blamed for a host of ills, from noncompetitive elections to increased animosity in Congress. Armed with sophisticated computer programs, legislators have drawn maps to create safe congressional districts with clear partisan majorities. And it has worked two years ago, nearly 98 percent of House incumbents won re-election.
As one North Carolina state senator put it, "We're in the business of rigging elections."
But the court, loath to involve itself too deeply in politics, has never agreed on what role it should play in limiting excessive partisanship. As in earlier cases, Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for a plurality, held open the possibility that the court might someday declare partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional. But the court was unable to agree on any standard to judge "how much partisan dominance is too much," leaving many skeptical that it ever will.
"If you look at the last 20 years of history, the most reasonable conclusion is that the court is unlikely to intervene directly to stop partisan gerrymanders," says Adam Cox, a law professor at the University of Chicago.
Vicious battles ahead. With that in mind, the court's ruling may be seen as an invitation to take DeLay's hardball tactics to other states.
"The Republicans are obviously not going to be the only party to be taking a serious look at this," says Sarah Feinberg of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Mary Wilson, president of the League of Women Voters, says, "We now can expect an even more vicious battle between the political parties as they redraw district lines every two years for partisan gain."