NASHVILLE — Tennessee Democrats are condemning Thursday's U.S. Supreme Court 5-4 ruling that closes the door to federal courts blocking even the most extreme partisan gerrymandering, in which the majority party that controls a state legislature draws political maps to benefit its candidates.
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tennessee, charged the Supreme Court's decision was "shortsighted and dangerous for our country."
The Nashville congressman noted it was a landmark Supreme Court ruling involving Tennessee — the 1962 decision Baker v. Carr — that established the one-person, one-vote standard and allowed federal courts to intervene in redistricting cases.
That case was brought after Tennessee rural legislators, who controlled a majority of House and Senate seats, refused for nearly 60 years to re-apportion population and redraw political districts.
"Now that the Supreme Court has failed to stop politicians from rigging the redistricting process, it's up to Congress to fix the system by passing my redistricting reform bills," Cooper said, adding that voters "ought to be able to pick their politicians, not the other way around."
Thursday's ruling does not actually impact the Baker v. Carr ruling.
The U.S. Supreme Court divided along partisan lines in cases involving a Democratic map from Maryland and a Republican map from North Carolina. Republican Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, stated, "we conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts."
Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Scott Golden said the Supreme Court decision "was the constitutionally correct" one.
"District lines should be drawn by elected officials who are held accountable by the people they represent, not appointed federal judges or un-elected bureaucrats," the GOP chairman noted.
Tennessee Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini called the decision "deeply troubling.
"Voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around," Mancini said. "In Tennessee, we have a legislature that works against the will of the people on critical issues like healthcare and education, and it's due in part to unbridled Republican gerrymandering."
The decision does not impair state courts from taking action.
Noting that he had not read the decision, state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said that when Senate Republicans drew districts in 2012 — it was first time since at least Reconstruction — "I think we drew our lines fair and legal. And when we do it again, I think we'll do the same thing."
Watson also pointed out that in the GOP's 2012 redistricting plan, the only sitting legislator to lose a seat was a Middle Tennessee Republican.
But the high court's decision Thursday set off a Twitter storm from state Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, who pointed to his own legislative district and said the "Supreme Court decision allows absurdly gerrymandered districts like the one I represent, which packs far-flung Democrats into one district to dilute their votes."
Yarbro said, "this political decision by the Supreme Court allows elected officials to pick their voters. For example, 40% of Tennesseans voted for Democrats in 2018, but only 15% of state Senate and 26% of House seats are held by Democrats."
Following the Supreme Court's decision, the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, said the nation's highest court "has brought an unfortunate end to the years-long fight to end extreme partisan gerrymandering. On Thursday, the court ruled that federal courts have no role to play in disputes over maps that were drawn on a purely partisan basis."
The center said that, as a result, the court has "raised the importance of enacting other reforms."
That's what Shanna Singh Hughey, president of the nonpartisan group Think Tennessee, hopes happens in the Volunteer State.
"I think what this really is that the Supreme Court says, you the states have the power to draw districts without oversight."
The Supreme Court will still be looking at issues involving discrimination against black voters as well as the one-person, one-vote issues decided in Baker v. Carr, she noted.
But Singh Hughey said Tennessee lawmakers should "consider a more open process that increases opportunities for citizen engagement. A few small changes could make a big difference."
For example, she said, Tennessee's current legislative maps appear by several measures to have "less partisan skew than many peer states."
Tennessee, however, got a "F" grade in terms of the openness of its last redistricting process in 2012, she said. The state ranked 40th, according to one study.
As a result, Singh Hughey said, Tennessee should look at increasing transparency and strengthening the "voice of voters" themselves in the redistricting process.
Those steps include providing advance public notice of meetings related to redistricting. And lawmakers could explore ways to encourage citizens' comments on procedures and plans by holding public meetings in different places and enabling public comments through live streaming.
Those steps could include adopting statutes requiring public notice, open meetings and publication of draft maps, she said.
Finally, Singh Hughey said, Tennessee should look at creating an advisory commission, typically comprised of legislators and members of the public, to advise state lawmakers on redistricting. The recommendations would not be legally binding and would require legislative approval.
Watson said he couldn't recall specifics on how plans were unveiled seven years ago but noted redistricting is a responsibility given to the legislature.
"I think, again, the fact that they rank us as fairly nonpartisan and the fact that ours withstood legal challenge, when so many others around the country didn't, means that our process works pretty good," he said.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.