The Supreme Court is resolving partisan redistricting cases from Wisconsin and Maryland without ruling on the broader issue of whether electoral maps can give an unfair advantage to a political party.
The justices unanimously ruled against Wisconsin Democrats who challenged legislative districts that gave Republicans a huge edge in the state legislature. In a separate unsigned opinion, they also did not side with Maryland Republicans who objected to a single congressional district.
The court sidestepped a definitive ruling in both cases. It could decide soon to take up a new case from North Carolina.
Proceedings will continue in lower courts in both cases. The Maryland case is only in its preliminary phase and has not yet had a trial. That will now happen.
In Wisconsin, the Democrats prevailed after a trial in which the court ruled that partisan redistricting could go too far and indeed, did in Wisconsin, where Republicans hold a huge edge in the legislature even though the state otherwise is closely divided between Democrats and Republicans.
The Supreme Court said that the plaintiffs in Wisconsin had failed to prove that they have the right to sue on a statewide basis, rather than challenge individual districts. The Democrats will have a chance to prove their case district by district.
Waiting in the wings is a case from North Carolina that seemingly addresses some of the high court's concerns. The lawsuit filed by North Carolina Democrats has plaintiffs in each of the state's 13 congressional districts. Like Wisconsin, North Carolina is generally closely divided in politics, but Republicans hold a 10-3 edge in congressional seats.
The majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts in the Wisconsin case cast doubt on the broadest theory about the redistricting issue known as partisan gerrymandering.
Roberts wrote that the Supreme Court's role "is to vindicate the individual rights of the people appearing before it," not generalized partisan preferences.
The usual course when the justices find that parties to a lawsuit lack the right to sue, or standing, is to dismiss the case. But, Roberts wrote, "This is not the usual case."
So the voters who sued will be able to try to prove they have standing.
"This is definitely not the end of the road," said Sachin Chheda, director of the Fair Elections Project which organized and brought the lawsuit.
"There is no vindication for the state's rigging of the maps and disenfranchising of our voters here," Chheda said. "We know as well today as we did when we started that our democracy is threatened and we need to return the power to the people."
Republicans hold a 64-35 majority in the Wisconsin Assembly and an 18-15 majority in the Senate. Republican state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who defended the maps, had no immediate comment but promised to have reaction after reading the ruling.
The Maryland lawsuit offered the court a more limited approach to dealing with the issue because it involves just one district that flipped from Republican to Democratic control after the 2011 round of redistricting. Again, though, the justices declined to decide any of the big questions before them:
- Should courts even be involved in the political task of redistricting?
- Is there a workable way to measure how much politics is too much?
- Do the particular plans being challenged cross that line?