WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Monday that states can try to remove partisan politics from the process of drawing political maps.
The decision was a victory for the proponents of independent commissions and a blow for state lawmakers who did not want to be drawn out of the process.
Voters in seven states — Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey and Washington — have turned to such commissions in an effort to reduce political “gerrymandering,” the map-drawing method that leads to districts easily won by Democrats or Republicans.
Arizona’s Republican legislators challenged the law by citing the specific wording of the Constitution. It instructs that “the times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof.”
The court majority said those words did not tie its hands. “Arizona voters sought to restore the core principle that voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, delivering the opinion for a five-member majority, “The elections clause, we affirm, does not hinder that endeavor.”
Ginsburg was joined by the other liberals and Justice Anthony Kennedy, who hails from California, which had much at stake in the case. The other four conservatives dissented.
Although the writers of the Constitution would have been unfamiliar with voter referendums, they would have been included in the dictionary definition of “legislature” at the time, Ginsburg wrote. One such definition was, “the power that makes laws.”
Holding that only legislatures can pass election laws would “run up against the Constitution’s animating principle that the people themselves are the originating source of all the powers of government,” she wrote.
In a dissent backed by the four more conservative justices, Chief Justice John Roberts said he recognized the difficulties in curbing gerrymandering, which can sometimes contort districts into odd shapes in order to benefit one party.
“No matter how concerned we may be about partisanship in redistricting, this court has no power to gerrymander the Constitution,” Roberts wrote.
He noted that under the majority’s reading, the 17th Amendment to the Constitution — requiring that senators be elected directly by the people instead of legislatures — wouldn’t have been necessary.
“What chumps! Didn’t they realize that all they had to do was interpret the constitutional term ‘the legislature’ to mean ‘the people?'” Roberts wrote with sarcasm. “The court today performs just such a magic trick with the elections clause.”
The Arizona case applies only to congressional lines. Nationally, those lines have grown ever more partisan. In 2012, Republicans won 53% of the vote, but 72% of the House seats in states where they drew the lines; Democrats won 56% of the vote but 71% of the seats where they controlled the process.
Reaction to the decision was predictably split along partisan lines.
“Today, the Supreme Court declared that the will of the voters must come first,” said Mark Schauer, who directs redistricting efforts for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
But Republicans “believe strongly in a system that has worked since our nation’s birth,” Republican State Leadership Committee Chairman Bill McCollum said. “We support the many states whose legislatures — elected by voters to make the tough decisions — determine legislative districts.”
In addition to the seven states affected by the ruling, Connecticut and Indiana employ backup commissions to draw the lines if the legislature fails. New York, Iowa, Maine, Ohio and Rhode Island have advisory commissions.Those states are not directly affected.
In most states, congressional and state legislative district lines are drawn with an eye toward geographic compactness and preserving municipal lines. Only eight states forbid line-drawing that “unduly” favors a particular candidate or party.
Monday’s ruling could embolden activists to push for even more changes.
“Now that our highest court has given their initiative its blessing, we’re hopeful that citizens and legislators alike in other states will push politics aside and create independent bodies to draw truly representative districts after the 2020 census,” said Miles Rapoport, president of Common Cause, a liberal-leaning, good-government group.
Lawyers for the Arizona commission had argued that “legislature” in the Constitution is meant to include the entire state government, including the governor, courts and voters.
The majority agreed. After all, state constitutions give governors the power to veto bills by the legislature, including elections bills. And Ginsburg noted from the bench that striking down Arizona’s initiative could also have the effect of nullifying other elections laws passed by initiative, like permanent voter registration.
The Supreme Court first declared that redistricting should establish “fair and effective representation for all citizens” in 1964, but that ruling only mandated districts of relatively equal populations. Given the opportunity to set standards for partisan gerrymandering in a 2004 case out of Pennsylvania, the court demurred in a 5-4 decision.
The impact of redistricting commissions is difficult to prove because they have existed for so few Census cycles and because so many other factors influence the outcome of elections. But some studies have shown that lines drawn by commissions made for closer congressional elections and state legislators who were more in tune with their voters.
Arizona voters took the power to draw district lines away from the Legislature and gave it to an independent commission in 2000. Since then, Democrats have gained three congressional seats.