WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court declared Monday it will consider whether gerrymandered election maps favoring one political party over another violate the Constitution, opening the possibility that justices could fundamentally change the way American elections are conducted.
The justices regularly are called to invalidate state electoral maps that have been illegally drawn to reduce the influence of racial minorities by depressing the impact of their votes.
But the Supreme Court has never found a plan unconstitutional because of partisan gerrymandering. If it does, it would have a revolutionary impact on the reapportionment that comes after the 2020 election. Such a change could come at the expense of Republicans, who control the process in the majority of states.
Although the GOP controls the Statehouse in Iowa through at least 2018, it does not control the congressional and legislative redistricting process here. Iowa is one of the minority of states that turn most of the duties of drawing the election maps for Congress and the Legislature over to a nonpartisan commission. That commission, the Legislative Services Agency, must make up to two attempts to have lawmakers adopt its maps as-is before presenting a third that lawmakers could amend.
The Supreme Court accepted the case from Wisconsin, where a divided panel of three federal judges last year ruled that the state’s Republican leadership in 2011 pushed through a plan so partisan it violated the Constitution’s First Amendment and equal rights protections.
The issue will be briefed and argued in the Supreme Court term that begins in October.
It comes at a time when the relatively obscure subject of reapportionment has taken on new significance, with many blaming the drawing of safely partisan seats for a polarized and gridlocked Congress. Former President Barack Obama has said one of his projects now will be to combat partisan gerrymanders after the 2020 Census.
In most states, both parties draw congressional and legislative districts to their own advantage — a challenge to a congressional plan drawn by Maryland Democrats is making its way through the courts.
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But Republicans have more to lose because they control so many more legislatures. The Republican National Committee and a dozen large GOP states have asked justices to reverse the Wisconsin decision.
That state’s legislative leaders asked the Supreme Court in their brief to reject any effort that “wrests control of districting away from the state legislators to whom the state constitution assigns that task, and hands it to federal judges and opportunistic plaintiffs seeking to accomplish in court what they failed to achieve at the ballot box.”
But the dozen plaintiffs — voters — said the evidence laid out in a trial in the Wisconsin case showed that “Republican legislative leaders authorized a secretive and exclusionary mapmaking process aimed at securing for their party a large advantage that would persist no matter what happened in future elections.”
In the election following adoption of the new maps, Wisconsin Republicans got just 48.6 percent of the statewide vote, but captured a 60-to-39 seat advantage in the State Assembly.
The Supreme Court has been reluctant to tackle partisan gerrymandering and sort through arguments about whether an electoral system is rigged or, instead, a party’s political advantage is due to changing attitudes and demographics.
The justices last took up the topic in 2004 in a case called Vieth v. Jubelirer. It split the court five different ways, with the bottom line being that the justices could not agree on a test to determine when normal political instincts such as protecting your own turned into an unconstitutional dilution of someone else’s vote.
Four justices — only Justice Clarence Thomas remains of that group — said it was not the court’s business to make such decisions. Four others — only Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer remain of this group — said such challenges could be heard by the court, but disagreed on the method.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy was in the middle. He joined the first group to decide the specific case against the challengers, but eft the door open for that he’d do for future cases.
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In the Wisconsin case, the state contends Wisconsin is a purple state in national elections, but its geography favors Republicans in state elections. Democratic voters are clustered in cities such as Milwaukee and Madison, while Republican voters are more evenly spread out. Any method of drawing districts would favor Republicans, it contends.