Supreme Court to hear major Wisconsin case on electoral maps

Posted June 21, 2017

The Supreme Court will take up the most important gerrymandering case in more than a decade, it announced Monday. By a vote of 5-4, the court also granted Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel's application for a stay in the redistricting case, Gill v. Whitford.

The Supreme Court has weighed in on the issue of race and congressional district-drawing, most recently last month when it rejected two North Carolina districts, as The Two-Way reported.

In its decision, the majority in the court panel decision wrote that the Assembly district map, which was drawn in the office of a Madison law firm that often represents Republican interests, "was meant to burden the representational rights of Democratic impeding their ability to translate their votes into legislative seats". Or, they pack those areas into one congressional seat, conceding a seat but ensuring fewer voters of the opposing party are in districts they can win.

The Supreme Court has sought a way to establish a standard for determining when partisan gerrymandering occurred, and it is unclear whether this Wisconsin formula will satisfy the justices.

"If the court indeed finds a partisan gerrymander, we'll get to the question, will those [Wisconsin] districts be redrawn in time for the 2018 elections or will it be kicked to 2020?"

Yet Democrats are more supportive of having courts rein in extreme districting plans, mainly because Republicans control more legislatures and drew districts after the 2010 census that enhanced their advantage in those states and in the House of Representatives. Arguments would likely be heard in the fall.

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"Although a majority of the [Supreme Court] has suggested that states can violate the Constitution if they draw legislative districts primarily to benefit one political party, the justices have never been able to identify the specific point at which states cross the constitutional line", Steve Vladeck, a Supreme Court analyst and law professor at the University of Texas School of Law, told CNN. The Wisconsin voters who sued to challenge the Assembly map argued that gaps over 7 percent violated the Constitution. But with the advent of sophisticated computer programs, it has become increasingly easy for a party that controls a state legislature to exaggerate its influence not only in that body but in its delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives (unless a state follows California's lead and entrusts redistricting to a citizens' commission or some other group of nonpoliticians).

The case involves a long-standing practice known as gerrymandering, a term meaning manipulating electoral boundaries for an unfair political advantage. A lower court struck down the districts as unconstitutional previous year. He says the redistricting process was "entirely lawful and constitutional". That weakened African-American voting strength elsewhere in the state, the court said.

The federal court that struck down the districts adopted an equation that offers a way to measure the partisan nature of the districts.

Packing many Democrats into a single district, for instance, wastes every Democratic vote beyond the bare majority needed to elect a Democratic candidate.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who sometimes sides with the court's liberals in major cases, could cast the decisive vote.

The Democrats say that the 2011 plan was drawn specifically to disenfranchise Democratic voters.

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