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U.S. Supreme Court justices vocal about partisan gerrymandering at Tuesday hearing

The U.S. Supreme Court took up a partisan gerrymandering case Tuesday that could affect redistricting across the nation. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

WASHINGTON — U.S. Supreme Court justices were vocal Tuesday about their concerns with regard to partisan gerrymandering but it remains unclear if they will agree to step in and set a standard for all states to follow.

The court took up Gill v. Whitford, a partisan gerrymandering case out of Wisconsin that has the potential to upend redistricting processes across the nation, and particularly North Carolina, where partisan advantage has played a major role in mapmaking.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Republican appointee who appears hold the court’s voting power on this issue, jumped in right away to ask questions of Misha Tseytlin, Solicitor General for Madison, Wisconsin, who argued that lawmakers followed traditional redistricting principles.

Suppose the court … decided that this is a first amendment issue, not an equal protection issue,” Kennedy said. “Would that change the calculus so that, if you’re in one part of the state, you have a first amendment interest in having your party strong or the other party weak?”

The attorney responded that it would not change because even if it was a First Amendment issue, it was still grounded in the right to vote.

Justices who are more left-leaning on the court seemed to focus on what partisan gerrymandering means for voters and the potential it has to erode the democratic system while some of the conservative justices tried to work out what a standard for measuring the issue could be.

“Gerrymandering is distasteful,” said Justice Samuel Alito, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush. “But if we are going to impose a standard on the courts, it has to be something that’s manageable and it has to be something that’s sufficiently concrete so that the public reaction to decisions is not going to be the one that the Chief Justice mentioned, that this three-judge court decided this, that — this way because two of the three were appointed by a Republican president or two of the three were appointed by a Democratic president.”

Chief Justice John Roberts said that intervening in partisan gerrymandering has the potential to “cause very serious harm to the status and integrity of the decisions of this court in the eyes of the country.”

Paul M. Smith, an attorney who argued on behalf of the plaintiffs in the case, told the justices that they were the only ones who could fix partisan gerrymandering.

“Politicians are never going to fix gerrymandering,” he said. “They like gerrymandering.”The problem in this area is that if you don’t do it, it is locked up.”

The oldest left-leaning justice on the court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, likened partisan gerrymandering to racial gerrymandering. She also expressed worry about what partisan gerrymandering meant for the right to vote.

“If you can stack the legislature in this way, what incentive is there for a voter to exercise his vote?” she asked. “What becomes of the precious right to vote?”

For more on this hearing and reactions from North Carolinians in attendance, read NC Policy Watch tomorrow morning.