Cooper: Back to pterodactyl districts

Cooper: Back to pterodactyl districts

June 28th, 2019 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday said it did not have the jurisdiction to rule on gerrymandering.


Get ready for more congressional districts that resemble a dragon, a cow's face, a dog, a pelvis, "a broken-winged pterodactyl" or "Goofy kicking Donald Duck."

The United States Supreme Court said Thursday politically drawn districts were all well and good because federal courts don't have the jurisdiction to rule on such questions.

"We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court in a 5-4 decision. "Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions."

The high court, in fact, has never moved previously to end gerrymandering, but it was thought the presence of one case from Maryland that showed blatant Democratic gerrymandering and one case from North Carolina that showed blatant Republican gerrymandering might entice the court to end its hands-off policy.

The term "gerrymandering" is named after Elbridge Gerry, a governor of Massachusetts who, in 1812, signed a bill that created a partisan district in the Boston area that many said resembled a mythological salamander.

For most of the last three-quarters of the 20th century, when Democrats held a majority of governorships and for most of those years both houses of Congress, gerrymandering was a given. Republicans occasionally uttered a peep, but it was rarely heard.

Since Republicans won both house of Congress in 1994, have held both houses for a majority of the years since and have had a majority of governorships, Democrats have raised far more than a peep. Where gerrymandering doesn't go their way, it's racist, unconstitutional, unethical and unfair.

But the two cases were an even-handed opportunity for the high court to weigh in or provide a new standard of creating congressional districts.

In declining to do so, though, it vacated the lower courts' rulings, essentially briefly re-establishing the blatantly gerrymandered districts.

"No one can accuse this Court of having a crabbed view of the reach of its competence," Roberts wrote. "But we have no commission to allocate political power and influence in the absence of a constitutional directive or legal standards to guide us in the exercise of such authority."

The chief justice, acknowledging the court had never struck down a partisan gerrymander as unconstitutional (though it has in perceived racial gerrymandering), said to do so would expand its judicial authority.

"Consideration of the impact of today's ruling on democratic principles," he wrote, "cannot ignore the effect of the unelected and politically unaccountable branch of the federal government assuming such an extraordinary and unprecedented role."

However, he did highlight the effort of some states, which have approved ballot measures to reform the redistricting process, and legislation passed by the House this year that would require states to establish independent redistricting commissions to draw voting lines.

It is precisely those independent redistricting commissions, though, that made us hope the Supreme Court would craft a better way. "Independent" often depends on your point of view. We don't believe a Democratic governor in a state he or she would like to turn more blue is going to appoint a truly independent commission, and the same probably goes for a Republican in a state he or she would like to become more red.

If the commission is populated with learned university professors, for instance, there is a 10-1 chance — according to a 2018 National Association of Scholars study — that the professor will be a Democrat.

Nevertheless, we figure this won't be the last time the issue of gerrymandering comes before the Supreme Court.

In the meantime, in a ruling also handed down Thursday that relates in some ways to gerrymandering, the court sent a case involving the use of a citizenship question on the 2020 census back to lower courts for further discussion. The Trump administration had wanted the question to be on the census, as it had been in some previous years, to ensure better enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.

Opponents feared the question would cause illegal immigrants not to fill out their census forms. And if they don't fill out their census forms, they're not counted toward the number of people living in a state. And states — wrongly, we believe — are doled out their congressional representatives every 10 years based on the number of people in the state, not the number of citizens in the state.

In other words, the more illegal immigrants — who cannot vote — in the state, the more potential congressional representatives the state has. Such a count naturally benefits Democrats, who want people like illegal immigrants to depend on the government for their existence.

Although the high court's ruling blocked the inclusion of the citizenship question, probably ruling it out for the 2020 census, it did not preclude future different rulings if the Trump administration provides a better explanation for its justification for using the citizenship question.

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