The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, July 12, 2019

U.S. Supreme Court declines to change rules on redistricting

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

The U.S. Supreme Court won't get involved in the process of political redistricting, leaving intact Michigan's current "gerrymandered" system and those in other states through 2020, and disappointing proponents of wholesale change in how district lines are drawn.

By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court opted not to interject itself into the heavily politicized process of gerrymandering legislative districts, keeping a system that skewed state legislatures to the political right during the past decade after Republican lawmakers in Michigan and elsewhere won a wave of seats in 2010, and then used that power to redraw political boundaries for what will ultimately amount to a 10-year advantage.

In Michigan, complete Republican control over the state House and Senate during this past decade led to the repeal of prevailing wage last year, to the imposition of the state's right-to-work law in 2012, and passage of a raft of other anti-worker laws in-between. Of course, redistricting can favor either party: the Supreme Court last month declined to get involved in gerrymandered cases favoring Democrats' advantage in Maryland and Republicans' advantage in North Carolina.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, could not see a way to take politics out of the equation when it comes to redistricting. "Deciding among just these different visions of fairness (you can imagine many others) poses basic questions that are political, not legal. There are no legal standards discernible in the Constitution for making such judgments, let alone limited and precise standards that are clear, manageable, and politically neutral. Any judicial decision on what is ‘fair’ in this context would be an ‘unmoored determination’ of the sort characteristic of a political question beyond the competence of the federal courts.”

Justice Elana Kagan was joined in dissent by the three other liberal justices. "The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government," she wrote. "Part of the Court's role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections."

In the near term, in Michigan and in three other states, the Supreme Court decision effectively reverses lower court rulings following lawsuits that would have required the designation of new district lines in time for the 2020 elections. However, when it comes to the 2020 legislative maps - redrawn every 10 years based on Census numbers - Gov. Gretchen Whitmer does have veto power over the plans the GOP-controlled House and Senate will send to her.

“Michiganders deserve to have their voices heard and their votes counted," said Whitmer after the Supremes' decision was released June 27. "Gerrymandering undermines the basic idea of open and free elections — regardless of political affiliation. It’s disappointing that the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to review this unfair practice, despite several other courts declaring partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional. This is why passage of Proposal 2 was so crucial to ensure Michigan has fair maps and fair representation. As governor, I will continue to do my job to ensure that voters can pick their elected officials, not the other way around.”

Proposal 2 referenced by Whitmer refers to the overwhelming 62-38 passage in last November's statewide general election of a ballot issue that takes gerrymandering out of the hands of state lawmakers, giving the power of redistricting to a 13-member citizens commission. It will be made up of four Republicans, four Democrats and five people who don't identify with a party. 

"People are tired of political games and politics as usual," said Katie Fahey, the executive director of Voters Not Politicians, the grassroots group that undertook Proposal 2. "This was a citizen-led ballot initiative and the passage of this proposal clearly shows that voters are tired of politics and ready for politicians to be focused on delivering results for the people and not for special interests, lobbyists and political parties." The commission will draw new lines for the 2022 statewide election.