April 29, 2004

What's a bit of gerrymandering between friends?

By a 5-4 vote, a divided US Supreme Court has turned down a challenge to Pennsylvania's congressional redistricting plan. A suit filed on behalf of Democratic voters had claimed that the Pennsylvania legislature — controlled by Republicans — had redrawn the state's congressional districts to benefit Republican candidates.

Every state has to redraw its congressional districts every ten years in a process that is frequently marked by partisan wrangling as each political party tries to get a result that will give their candidates the best possible chance of winning office. Pennsylvania faced a particularly hard redistricting task after the 2000 census, as population shifts in the country took away two of Pennsylvania's seats in the House of Representatives. Although Democrats outnumber Republicans in Pennsylvania by a half-million voters, the redistricting plan approved by the legilsature drew districts that resulted in Republicans being elected in 12 of the 19 new districts. Under the old plan, the two major parties split the congressional delegation almost evenly: 11 Republicans, 10 Democrats.

Citing a 1986 Supreme Court decision holding that politically motivated gerrymandering could be unconstitutional, a group of Democratic voters went to federal court to overturn the new district map for Pennsylvania. However, since the 1986 decision laid down no clear rules for when it was permissible for federal courts to intervene in gerrymandering case, the lower court ruled against the Pennsylvania voters, saying that it had no power to review the state's congressional districts. Today's ruling by the US Supreme Court upheld that lower court decision.

Today's court decision has numerous political consequences. The obvious one is that Pennsylvania's gerrymandered districts stay in place. But the decision will likely affect challenges to similar Republican gerrymanders in other states — Colorado being the first example that comes to mind. Given that the GOP has been aggressive in redrawing congressional districts in Texas and other states where it control the legislature, the Supreme Court has basically given a green light to continue that strategy.

The decision also point to the importance of the November presidential elections. It's an open secret that at least a couple of justices are considering retirement, and that November's winner could appoint at least a couple of new faces to the high court. In today's 5-4 vote, four of the conservative justices indicated that they were willing to go further than the court majority, and overturn the 1986 decision altogether. Given this, even one new conservative justice would provide enough votes to have the Supreme Court hand political parties a completely free hand when they redraw congresional districts.

Some background on redistricting: Every ten years, after the results of the national census results appear, states are required to re-draw the boundaries of their legislative districts to ensure that the number of people in each one are about equal. What this means in practice is that the party that holds legislative power in each state attempts to draw the boundaries in such a way that their party gets the maximum number of 'safe' seats. Often the districts make no geographic sense whatever — the boundaries are 'gerrymandered' around to include this pocket and that pocket of the party's voters. (The 12th congressional district in North Carolina is a textbook example of the process.)The other party usally cries 'foul' — often justifiably — and the whole matter goes to court. Quite frequently, federal courts end up redrawing the districts, and sometimes the redistricting fight makes it all the way to the US Supreme Court for a final decision, as the Pennsylvania case did today.

Posted by Magpie at April 29, 2004 01:00 AM | Elections | Technorati links |