Supreme Court Decision Means Partisan Redistricting Issue Will Be Left To States The U.S. Supreme Court says partisan redistricting is a political question, not one that federal courts can weigh in on.


Supreme Court Rules Partisan Gerrymandering Is Beyond The Reach Of Federal Courts

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">


I'm Audie Cornish in Washington, where the Supreme Court has completed its term today. As the justices went out the door, they released a number of decisions, including one on whether and how far lawmakers can go to draw political boundaries that favor their party. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled today essentially that such partisan gerrymandering is beyond their control. In a sharply ideological decision, the court's conservative judges said redistricting claims, quote, "present political questions beyond the reach of federal courts."

NPR's Miles Parks is covering voting for NPR. He joins us now. Welcome to the studio, Miles.


CORNISH: So the cases today that the Supreme Court ruled on were from North Carolina and Maryland. Can you give us the details?

PARKS: Sure. So in North Carolina, which is a state that's divided roughly 50/50 between Democrats and Republicans, Republicans who controlled the state legislature had drawn maps that favor their party extreme - gave them 10 seats in Congress compared to three seats for the Democrats.

In Maryland, it was switched. Democrats controlled the government there and drew districts that basically forced out a longtime Republican incumbent in Maryland's 6th District, which is in the northwest of the state.

What's interesting here is that the intent was very clear. Legislators in both states had made it clear that it was partisan gains that they were after when drawing the maps. And the plaintiffs were arguing to the Supreme Court that that should be unconstitutional. Supreme Court, however, did not agree, and they basically pulled the plug on both lawsuits and also on other federal lawsuits that are waiting in the wings in states like Ohio and Wisconsin also related to partisan gerrymandering. The maps in all of these places will stay put.

CORNISH: How is this still a debate? I mean, it's a term that goes back to 1812 - right? - named for Elbridge Gerry. Can you talk about what's going on here?

PARKS: Yeah, absolutely. We have a long, rich history in America of weirdly shaped districts. But it's not like this problem just cropped up yesterday. About 15 years ago, former Justice Kennedy wrote about it, and he said basically this is an issue, but we just need to find a manageable standard by which we can fix it.

Flash-forward to 2019, and we have all of these advanced computers that can do this sort of statistical analysis that could show you exactly how to draw fair districts, but that didn't seem to sway the Supreme Court. Justice - excuse me - Justice Roberts wrote that, yes, the practice is - does seem to be unseemly but that it's not the court's place to jump into politics and reapportion political power.

CORNISH: So if it's not the court's role, then who's in charge of enforcing limits on redistricting for clear political gain?

PARKS: Yeah, that's a good question. It still could theoretically be in the courts, just at the state level potentially because partisan gerrymandering could theoretically break some state laws. The other thing that Justice Roberts mentioned in his opinion is that legislation could be written here to fix this problem either at the federal level through Congress or at the state level through citizen initiatives, which have had success in some states.

The thing is, the bottom line is that it's going to be really different because of all these different state laws what maps look like in each state because the rules - the game rules are just going to be different.

CORNISH: Let's look ahead to 2020 when new districts are going to be drawn after that election and the census. What does it mean - this ruling mean for all that?

PARKS: Yeah, I talked to Justin Levitt about this. He's an election law professor at Loyola Law School, and here's what he told me.

JUSTIN LEVITT: We're in "Mad Max" territory now. There are no rules. And I do think you'll see more legislators in more states taking up the mantle of extreme partisan aggression against people who disagree with them.

PARKS: The key is this really only matters in states that control the whole of government. But I should say it is both parties. I think there's been this acknowledgment that Republicans took advantage of this process while Democrats were largely ignoring it leading up to the 2010 election. Democrats are not going to let that happen looking ahead to the 2020 election. They're putting a lot of money into this issue. Both sides are going to be fighting to control the maps after the 2020 election.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Miles Parks. Thanks for your reporting.

PARKS: Thank you.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.