WASHINGTON — Jun 19, 2017, 9:38 PM ET

Top court to hear case that could reshape US political map

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The Supreme Court will take up a momentous fight over parties manipulating electoral districts to gain partisan advantage in a case that could affect the balance of power between Democrats and Republicans across the United States.

At issue is whether Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin drew legislative districts that favored their party and were so out of whack with the state's political breakdown that they violated the constitutional rights of Democratic voters.

It will be the high court's first case in more than a decade on what's known as partisan gerrymandering. A lower court struck down the districts as unconstitutional last year.

The justices won't hear the arguments until the fall, but the case has already taken on a distinctly ideological, if not partisan, tone. Just 90 minutes after justices announced Monday that they would hear the case, the five more conservative justices voted to halt a lower court's order to redraw the state's legislative districts by November, in time for next year's elections.

The four more liberal justices, named to the court by Democrats, would have let the new line-drawing proceed even as the court considers the issue.

That divide could be significant. One factor the court weighs in making such decisions is which side seems to have a better chance of winning.

Republicans who control the state legislature assured the court that they could draw new maps in time for the 2018 elections, if the court strikes down the districts. If the state wins, there'll be no need for new districts.

Democrats hope a favorable decision will help them cut into Republican electoral majorities. Election law experts say the case is the best chance yet for the high court to put limits on what lawmakers may do to gain a partisan advantage in creating political district maps.

Both parties have tried to get the largest partisan edge when they control redistricting. 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.

The Supreme Court has never struck down districts because they are unfairly partisan. Similar lawsuits are pending in Maryland, where Democrats dominate, and North Carolina, where Republicans have a huge edge in the congressional delegation and the state legislature.

"The decision in this case will likely set the path for redistricting in 2020 and beyond. The essential question is whether the court will finally accept a new standard and block partisan gerrymandering, or continue the court's stated disapproval of excessive partisan gerrymandering while never finding one to overrule," League of Women Voters president Chris Carson said.

The challengers to the Wisconsin districts said it is an extreme example of redistricting that has led to ever-increasing polarization in American politics because so few districts are genuinely competitive between the parties. In these safe seats, incumbents tend to be more concerned about primary challengers, so they try to appeal mostly to their party's base.

"Partisan gerrymandering of this kind is worse now than at any time in recent memory," said Paul Smith, who is representing the challengers to the GOP plan in Wisconsin.

But Wisconsin officials defended the legislature's work and called on the justices to undo the lower-court ruling.

"As I have said before, our redistricting process was entirely lawful and constitutional, and the district court should be reversed," Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel said.

Wisconsin Republicans drew the maps in 2011 after they took full control of state government in the 2010 elections. Under those maps in 2012, Republicans captured 61 percent of state assembly seats while winning 48.6 percent of the statewide vote. They now have their largest majorities in the state House and Senate in decades.

The federal court that struck down the districts adopted an equation that offers a way to measure the partisan nature of the districts. It essentially measures and compares each party's wasted votes —those going to the winner in excess of what's needed for victory — in an election. As measured by this "efficiency gap," Republicans can increase the number of the districts they control by stuffing Democratic voters into already Democratic districts.

The measurement could appeal to Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has said he is willing to referee claims of excessively partisan redistricting, but only if the court can find a workable way to do so. Until now, he hasn't found one.

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Associated Press writer Scott Bauer contributed to this report from Madison, Wisconsin.

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  • flatrock

    If someone has actually come up with workable rules to prevent gerrymandering I think it would be very good to implement them. However, the courts lack the authority to come up with a set of rules and impose them on the states. Creating laws are what we have legislatures for. In the case of gerrymandering in particular the legislature in the majority definitely has a disincentive to change things. This is why states have ballot initiatives so that the people can change things by popular vote when their elected representatives don't have their best interests in mind.
    I agree that our political system would be better if gerrymandering were severely restricted, but it would also be significantly better if the courts would quit overreaching.

  • cephalo

    We have a very serious problem when our congress has an approval rating in the low teens and single digits for decades. We had better find a solution.

  • Your Worst Nightmare

    In an ideal world, gerrymandering would not exist. Since that is obviously not the case, what I haven't seen is the plan that would make the creation of districts non political. How exactly would that be done is the question that needs to be asked and answered? Can computers accomplish what people obviously don't want to do? Create fairer elections.

  • Stop the BS

    Start off with a fair line with each district's population cut in half, then push for competition to build the most attractive communities/districts to get the people moving to your side. I realize that sounds easy, but sometimes govt doesn't like to take the most logical route.

  • Jack25

    Gerrymandering should be illegal.

  • loydfair

    eliminate congressional districts . eliminate electoral college . ................................................
    ................ ONE PERSON *** ONE VOTE ............ that's it. .......................................................
    house reps will be elected the same way senators are elected ......... .........................................
    i can see republicans becoming apoplectic just reading this post .

  • Verity Pendelton

    My district is shaped like a Half- horseshoe around an inner city suburban district. It pretty much eliminates any African-americans. We have a district on the other half that mimics it. So, yes, the suburban area has two districts while the inner city suburban district has one.

  • Bree Zee

    There's got to be a computer program that can do this based on population vs party. Let the computer do it. Evaluate it every 10 yrs for changes to population. There. Done.

  • Henry R

    Is gerrymandering bad? Virginia (and other states) gerrymandered districts ensuring black folks were the majority. See Rep. Bobby Scott's district. Should it be changed?

  • Mr. Joe

    Both parties fully support gerrymandering and always will. Various courts have looked at this problem without significant result.The vast majority of Americans don't care about gerrymandering or actually support efforts to pencil out participation by opposition parties or minorities. Last, this article correctly points out the SC hasn't actually done anything yet, except talk about talking about about it. It's highly unlikely the SC will get it right, if they actually do anything in the first place.

  • Alfred E Neuman

    Any redistricting must be done by a non-political group.

  • Reformed Leftist

    It's interesting that SCOTUS says we can gerrymander for political reasons, but not on the basis of any protected class.

  • CrazyShmuck

    The parties with the ability to do so have redistricted since the day before forever. Make solid districts, none of the easily manipulated kind, and make them stick, except when the population changes. There's no reason to have districts that are something like 500 yards wide and 100 miles long.

  • snake

    No matter what the SC does this is a win for the Democrats. If the court says the Wi gerrymandering is OK California will abolish it's non partisan commission and gerrymander the state to allow an additional 15 Democrats to be elected. If the court sets new rules PA,OH,NC,WI and other states will be forced to draw new districts and Democrats will gain seats. Hopefully the court will do the right thing and set new guidelines that permit fair districts.

  • TS

    Hey Dems, maybe the people just don't like you.

  • runton

    The conservative empire built upon subjugation, misinformation, and oppression has reared its nasty head and is now beginning its collapse.

    The republic of the United States may survive after all.

  • Camus53

    Much more prevalent than many
    voters may be cognizant. I have heard there is some crazy high percentage of races run on a national basis where there is no opponent to the incubent due to gerrymandering.

    Everyone should be upset for this and many other reasons, including the millions in cost each time State courts order redistricting.