While there has been much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth by its critics, the Supreme Court’s decision last month on the issue of partisan gerrymandering of election districts is encouraging for multiple reasons.
Partisan gerrymandering is the process of drawing election district lines in such a way as to favor a particular political party. If Georgia’s General Assembly were to draw congressional district lines so as to make likely Democratic Party victories in three districts, while assuring Republicans would win election in 11 others — that would be gerrymandering.
The redrawing of political districts happens every 10 years, after the completion of the Census provides updated population data to use as the basis for doing so. Selectively crafting election districts to favor one party or another is something of a political tradition in many states, and often results in district boundaries that are both implausible and impossible to defend.
Gerrymandering based on the likelihood of support for candidates of a particular party is one of those things that qualifies as being smart partisan politics, though not necessarily good government. It is the reason some political districts are small and compact while others stretch for hundreds of miles, sometimes encompassing areas that don’t necessarily have a lot in common.
Both of today’s dominant political parties are guilty of drawing political districts to favor election of their candidates. In fact, the two cases before the Supreme Court which prompted last month’s decision involved one state where the Democratic leadership was accused of unfairly drawing district lines, and one where the Republican leadership was accused of the same.
With a 5-4 split vote that followed the traditional philosophical lines we’ve come to expect among the Justices, the Supreme Court basically said there was not a legal issue involved upon which they could rule, that the practice of gerrymandering based on favoring one party over another was a political issue, not a judicial one.
Those who have been quick to bemoan past Courts for being too quick to accept the activist role of “writing law” where none previously existed should rejoice in such a ruling.
“Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts.
That the Court refrained from taking upon itself powers “with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution” is as important as the ruling on gerrymandering itself. Previous Courts have been too willing to erase the lines of demarcation between legislative and judicial responsibilities, using the judicial bench to achieve certain legislative goals.
“We have no commission to allocate political power and influence in the absence of a constitutional directive or legal standards to guide us in the exercise of such authority,” reads the Court decision.
Another point made in the Court’s ruling was that there is no guarantee of “fair” treatment among political parties, nor any standards for determining what is or is not “fair.”
It is imperative to note that the Court’s decision deals only with gerrymandering done to achieve a certain political goal. In previous cases, it has ruled against drawing districts focused on racial composition of the electorate, since a prohibition of racial bias is clearly addressed in the Constitution. Last month’s decision made a distinction between the two, noting the difference between racial and political gerrymandering from a Constitutional basis.
Absent the presence of direction from the Supreme Court, the issue of how to draw election districts returns to the states and their legislative bodies. In some states, bipartisan committees have been created legislatively to attempt to reduce the role that political power plays in reapportionment of election districts; Georgia is not one of those states.
In Georgia, the effort to draw election districts after new Census numbers are made available is normally an exercise in political warfare. Strategists from both parties try to do so in such a way as to maximize the electability of their candidates and assure the defeat of candidates from another party.
Sometimes this takes the form of putting two incumbents into the same district. Sometimes it means creating a district dominated by the minority party so as to dilute that party’s presence in other districts. Sometimes it means district lines that look like a rambling slug’s trail left across a window screen.
It is typically an ugly process driven by politics and political greed, and needs to be revamped at the state level so as to base district lines on geography, shared needs of the constituency, and common sense.
But those are steps that need to be taken in the state Capitol, not by the Supreme Court.
We think the gerrymandering process that has been so dominant in Georgia for decades is bad, but the way to fix it is by the candidates we elect to office and the expectations we put upon them.
We are encouraged that the Supreme Court stepped away from answering a call for activism on the issue and stood firm on the lack of a Constitutional mandate for action. We agree with the Justices that there is no legal promise that political parties are guaranteed any sort of “equality,” in the amassing of power and clout.
And we hope, with the Supreme Court now firmly on the sidelines, that state officials will get serious about revamping the process with an eye toward better governance rather than political power bases.