June 28, 2019
The U.S. Supreme Court handed down two politically charged decisions in the final week of its term. The decisions appear to cut in different directions, but both will have an indirect, if not direct, impact on every American.
First, the Court refused to eliminate a resoundingly Machiavellian concept in American politics “to the victors go the spoils.” The Court’s five conservative justices ruled that judges do not have the ability to prohibit the practice known as “partisan” gerrymandering.
“We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority.
The decision does not favor any particular party. Both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of gerrymandering. In fact, the court sided with Republican lawmakers in North Carolina and Democratic legislators in Maryland after their decidedly partisan legislative maps were challenged by voters.
The second decision, however, was a surprise. The Court has, at least temporarily, prevented the Trump administration from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census. In some sense the two decisions are intertwined.
The boundaries of legislative districts across the country are redrawn to reflect population changes contained in the census which is conducted by the federal government every decade - a process that is mandated by the U.S. Constitution.
The act of redrawing districts is a practice dating back two centuries. Elbridge Gerry was the governor of Massachusetts in 1812 when he signed off on a misshapen legislative district that stretched from Boston to New Hampshire and heavily favored the Federalist Party.
Gerry was no political hack, according to Smithsonian Magazine. He was literally a Founding Father, signer of the Declaration of Independence, framer of the Constitution, congressman, diplomat, and the fifth vice-president.
However, today Gerry’s name is attached to one of America’s most wantonly political acts - gerrymandering.
Redistricting in most states is carried out by the party in power in the legislature. Gerrymandering typically involves one party re-drawing legislative districts to create districts that are virtually invulnerable. At the same time, the party in power seeks to dilute districts that favor the opposing party to make those districts more vulnerable.
Critics have said partisan gerrymandering, when taken to extremes, warps democracy by intentionally diluting the power of some voters and the electability of candidates they support, reported CNN.
The attempted politicization of the census is on hold for now, but not completely off the table. The High Court’s unanimous decision, also written by Chief Justice Roberts, partially upheld a ruling from earlier this year, by Judge Jesse Furman of the federal Southern District of New York. Furman ruled that the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the census violated the law by being “arbitrary and capricious,” since the Trump administration’s reason for adding the question - helping to enforce the Voting Rights Act - was contrived after the fact.
The political consequence of a citizenship question during the census is that it tends to lead people in households with legal immigrants to not respond to the census questionnaire. According to the Census Bureau, that could result in an undercount in urban areas where immigrant groups tend to live, while leaving rural - mainly white areas - largely unaffected.
The census data is used to determine how legislative districts are designed. The political consequences are that predominately blue urban areas will lose seats and predominately red rural areas will gain seats.
So when you couple gerrymandering with a citizenship question, rural Republican areas gain more congressional seats and gerrymandering keeps those seats firmly in the GOP column. These two decisions have the potential to impact politics now and far into the future.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.
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