For more than 30 years, North Carolinians have pleaded with state and federal courts to provide them with something simple: fair maps that give voters the voice they deserve in elections.
That voice has been muted because of lawmakers — both Democrats and Republicans — who for decades have drawn gerrymandered voting districts that run contrary to core principles enshrined in the Constitution.
On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered its response: You’re on your own.
In its 5-4 ruling on Rucho v. Common Cause, the Court held that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts expressed sympathy to voters who are victimized by gerrymandering, which he acknowledged is “incompatible with democratic principles.” But Roberts said the solution must come from state legislatures and Congress.
Justice Elena Kagan, in a blistering dissent, responded: “For the first time ever, this Court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities.”
We agree. If there ever was a time for the Supreme Court to give voting back to the voters, it was now. The Justices had before them two cases of egregious district drawing — one from Republicans in North Carolina and one from Democrats in Maryland. Together, they were a reminder that gerrymandering is a bi-partisan scourge on voters, an affliction perpetrated by the powerful wanting to keep power, regardless of political party.
In North Carolina, Republicans were especially unabashed about it. When the General Assembly met in 2016 to pass a congressional map involved in Wednesday’s case, Republican Rep. David Lewis, co-chair of the elections committee responsible for the maps, said he believed “electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats.”
“I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats,” Lewis said at the time.
Previously, the Supreme Court had done what courts sometimes do — make rulings around the periphery instead of cutting to the issue at hand. Gerrymandering was wrong, the Justices said for example in 2016, if districts were drawn to intentionally disenfranchise groups by race. In response, N.C. Republicans did what lawmakers often do — dial back on racial gerrymandering just enough to satisfy the Court while drawing maps that still gave them a partisan advantage.
Such was the case for the Justices stepping in — because lawmakers, for the most part, act in their own self interest. Republicans and Democrats have shown they’re concerned with gerrymandering only when it blocks them from power. Those in the majority quickly abandon the protests they once made.
Which is why Thursday’s ruling is so dispiriting. Voters needed the Court to do what lawmakers won’t — to correct an unconstitutional practice, to declare the law as it so often does, to provide Americans with free and fair elections. Instead, it shrugged.