The nation’s highest court says the practice of gerrymandering legislative district lines is a democratic problem that must be resolved by democratic, not judicial, means.
Gerrymandering legislative districts may represent a problem for society, but it’s not one the federal courts are in a position to remedy.
That was the conclusion of a historic 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision last week that held that the longstanding practice and problem of manipulating legislative district lines to give one political party an advantage over the other is best left to the states to resolve on their own.
“Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two political parties,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court’s majority.
The court’s opinion brought dissenting Justice Elena Kagan to the brink of tears. (News accounts noted that Kagan read her dissent from the bench in a voice that was “sometimes breaking.”) But others should not be unduly troubled or surprised by a decision in which the court found it has no grounds to intervene and, just as important, no workable solution to offer.
The latter is especially important. Retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, like many people, was greatly bothered by gerrymandering because of the affront it represents to the democratic process. At the same time, Kennedy could conceive no solution that didn’t create a host of other problems.
Kagan, of course, was dismayed by the court’s reluctance to commandeer the process.
“Of all times to abandon the court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one,” she wrote.
But, in fact, the court did declare the law. What it did not do, to Kagan’s chagrin, is rewrite the law as it has been interpreted since the country’s founding.
Gerrymandering is the process by which majority political parties draw legislative district boundary lines to perpetuate their power.
Both political parties do it, as demonstrated by the cases decided by the court.
They involved Democrats gerrymandering districts to minimize Republicans’ chances to win office in Maryland and Republicans doing the same thing to Democrats in North Carolina.
Gerrymandering was once the subject of humor by unapologetic politicians who bragged about abusing their power. California U.S. Rep. Phillip Burton once joked that the gerrymandered districts he drew were his “contribution to modern art.” But over the decades, as public unhappiness with the practice has spread, politicians have become more apt to downplay the practice that follows the U.S. Census conducted every 10 years.
Federal and state legislative districts are re-drawn to conform with shifts, growth and declines in population.
In Illinois, it’s become a political art form that will remain in place so long as Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan holds power. His unofficial motto is “Gerrymandering yesterday, gerrymandering today, gerrymandering forever.”
Despite strong public support for reform, Madigan has repeatedly played a key role in blocking a proposed state constitutional amendment that would allow voters a say on overturning the status quo. Indeed, he’s doing so right now even as proponents continue to urge legislators to push for a vote on the measure.
That approach has paid off for Madigan, whose maneuvers have given Democrats seemingly permanent control of the General Assembly and reduced Republicans to a crabby, ineffective superminority.
Other states have not been so reluctant to take action. California, Michigan and Washington have stripped legislators of the power to draw their own district boundary lines and transferred it to independent commissions instructed to ignore partisan voting patterns and draw compact, contiguous districts.
Excluding Illinois, there is reason to believe that this powerful reform movement will continue to spread.
Even if it doesn’t, it’s hardly the end of the world.
Critics, with considerable justification, may decry the process. But this nation has thrived in the face of this partisan ugliness, as have most states, Illinois being a pitiful exception.
That does not make the practice any more acceptable. But it’s impossible to separate politics from politics, an inherently ugly business dominated by self-absorbed self-promoters who consider maintaining power their top priority.