WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court punted Monday on two closely watched political gerrymandering cases challengers hoped would end the partisan redrawing of districts to unfairly benefit one political party.
The decisions in the Wisconsin and Maryland political gerrymandering cases were based on procedural issues and do not represent a broad ruling on whether political gerrymandering is unconstitutional, as challengers argue.
With the Wisconsin and Maryland cases heading back to lower courts, the Supreme Court is preparing to take up another major gerrymandering case during its next term, which begins in October. In that case, North Carolina Democrats are challenging Republican-drawn boundaries in a state where the GOP controls 10 of 13 congressional districts.
In the Wisconsin case, Gill v. Whitford, the state asked the Supreme Court to overturn a decision by a divided three-judge panel of the Madison-based U.S. District for the Western District of Wisconsin — the first federal court in three decades to invalidate a redistricting plan based on partisan gerrymandering grounds. That court struck down as unconstitutional a 2011 redistricting plan for the lower house of the state assembly, ruling it effectively guaranteed Republican victories in many assembly districts.
In Gill, challengers argue the gerrymandering violates the “one-person, one-vote” principle of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause and the First Amendment rights of association and free speech.
In the Maryland case, Benisek v. Lamone, the Supreme Court held that a federal district court had not erred when it denied a preliminary injunction in the case.
Republicans sought to reverse the ruling of a divided three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court in Maryland denying a GOP request that the court blocks a Democratic-drawn congressional district. The GOP challengers argue the maps retaliated against Republican voters for their political association, in violation of the First Amendment.
The Wisconsin and Maryland cases center on political boundaries redrawn after the 2010 Census. (The Constitution requires political boundaries be adjusted after the decennial Census in all 43 states with more than one at-large congressional district.)
The Supreme Court has struck down political districts over racial discrimination but has never ruled that extreme political gerrymandering violates the Constitution.