Elections

Score One Against Gerrymandering

JM Ashby
Written by JM Ashby

While today's good news has been mixed with bad news, this may be the most consequential decision of all.

The Supreme Court ruled today, in a 5-4 vote, that independent commissions created through ballot initiatives can supplant state legislatures as the arbiter of district lines.

In effect, the court has ruled, in a majority opinion authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that citizens can prevent their legislatures from redrawing lines to create a permanent majority by establishing an independent commission to draw the lines.

"The Framers may not have imagined the modern initiative process in which the people’s legislative power is coextensive with the state legislature’s authority, but the invention of the initiative was in full harmony with the Constitution’s conception of the people as the font of governmental power," she wrote.

"Banning lawmaking by initiative to direct a State’s method of apportioning congressional districts would do more than stymie attempts to curb partisan gerrymandering, by which the majority in the legislature draws district lines to their party’s advantage. It would also cast doubt on numerous other election laws adopted by the initiative method of legislating."

The most immediate impact of this ruling will be felt in Arizona where a ballot initiative spawned an independent commission to draw district lines.

The conservative state legislature filed a lawsuit challenging the commission's constitutionality, arguing that the "time, place and manner of holding elections" is ultimately the purview of the legislature, but today's Supreme Court ruling set the record straight.

Ginsburg did not leave much open to interpretation in her majority opinion. This is a clear shot across the bow of gerrymandering.

  • muselet

    Samantha Lachman at HuffPo:

    The Supreme Court has previously ruled that “legislature” can refer to legislative power and the legislative process, as exercised by the people through direct democracy, since the Constitution’s framers at the time didn’t foresee how initiatives and referenda would become the law in states like Arizona.

    As Justice Elena Kagan pointed out in March’s oral arguments, state legislatures have previously been cut out of election administration issues with the advent of measures to instate voter identification and mail-in voting, as established by initiatives in in Mississippi and Oregon, respectively.

    “There are zillions of these laws,” Kagan said. “So would all of those be unconstitutional as well?”

    The legislature’s attorney, Paul Clement, said those election laws wouldn’t be at risk because they didn’t take power away from the legislature, as the creation of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission did.

    Either “times, places, and manner” of federal elections “shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof” applies to all initiatives or none. Pretending that redistricting is a special case doesn’t pass the giggle test. Unless you’re one of the conservatives on the Supreme Court, of course.

    In response to the majority’s decision, the dissenters accepted the majority’s decision with exactly the same dignity and graciousness they displayed after the King and Obergefell decisions: they hooted and gibbered and bashed sticks against the ground rather than make a legal argument.

    Also, Ed Kilgore made a point that’s hard to argue with:

    This decision will probably be perceived as a victory for “progressives” or even for “Democrats,” since a lot of the former think redistricting reform is a really big deal and a lot of the latter feared that the current Republican domination of state legislatures meant a limitation of redistricting powers to those bodies might perpetuate GOP House majorities going forward.

    But you can certainly make an argument that the biggest beneficiaries of today’s decision are California Republicans, who have gotten a far better map from this state’s independent redistricting commission than they could ever get from a heavily Democratic legislature.

    The Ds here don’t have the nerve to do it, but had the Supremes shot down independent redistricting commissions, I was hoping they would reduce the number of R districts to zero.

    Oh, well. Win some, lose some.

    –alopecia

    • Christopher Foxx

      Also, Ed Kilgore made a point that’s hard to argue with:

      This decision will probably be perceived as a victory for “progressives” or even for “Democrats,” since a lot of the former think redistricting reform is a really big deal and a lot of the latter feared that the current Republican domination of state legislatures meant a limitation of redistricting powers to those bodies might perpetuate GOP House majorities going forward.
      But you can certainly make an argument that the biggest beneficiaries of today’s decision are California Republicans, who have gotten a far better map from this state’s independent redistricting commission than they could ever get from a heavily Democratic legislature.

      So … Democrats have nothing to gain in states dominated by Republicans, but Republicans have something to gain in a state dominated by Democrats?

      That strikes me as a point one certainly could argue with.

      • muselet

        The minority party is likely to have an easier time in a state with an independent redistricting commission than in a state without, regardless of which party is in the minority.

        Independent commissions are not a perfect solution to gerrymandering, but they are a partial solution.

        –alopecia

      • muselet

        The minority party is likely to have an easier time in a state with an independent redistricting commission than in a state without, regardless of which party is in the minority.

        Independent commissions are not a perfect solution to gerrymandering, but they are a partial solution.

        –alopecia

  • japa21

    And just how much of the tax-payers’ money did the “fiscally conservative” GOP of AZ spend on this suit?