The Supreme Court told the nation Thursday that it did not want to get involved in the politically fraught question of how to draw fair election-district maps, telling voters to fix at the ballot box the extreme partisanship that is strangling our democratic process.
In a 5-4 ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts conceded that the results of gerrymandering might “reasonably seem unjust,” but said federal judges shouldn’t be drawn into every partisan struggle to manipulate the boundaries of districts. Yes, wringing all politics out of the process of drawing boundaries is almost impossible, and it has been a problem since former Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry drew serpentine state Senate districts in the early 1800s to stymie his nemesis in the Federalist Party.
Roberts dismissively said federal courts, which have seen a rash of such cases, had neither the power nor the standards to determine fair lines. In some quarters, that’s considered a legitimate legal concept, and last fall, voters in five states approved referenda to limit the involvement of politicians in drawing maps. Yet, the court’s sweeping decision unwisely slammed the door on reviewing even the most egregious examples of rigging the system to create safe seats for one party. That’s troublesome at a time when extreme gerrymandering is creating state and local legislatures as well as congressional delegations that do not represent the popular vote.
Lawmakers from these safe districts have no reason to compromise. Instead, they become even more hyperpartisan because usually the only challenge to their incumbency is a primary faceoff with a candidate who represents the most extreme elements of their party. Further, safe seats tend to make lawmakers unaccountable, lending to corruption or the kowtowing to special interests.
Justice Elena Kagan made this point in her stinging dissent: “For the first time ever, this Court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities . . . If left unchecked, gerrymanders like the ones here may irreparably damage our system of government.”
Chief justice calls out census scam
While the gerrymandering decision wasn’t surprising, the repudiation of the Trump administration’s attempt to hijack the upcoming census is an indication of how disreputably this critically important population count has been handled. Even if the Commerce and Justice departments had been honest about why they want to ask respondents whether they are citizens, it still would have been a reprehensible effort to undercount millions of immigrants through intimidation.
But the administration lied about its reasoning, prompting a scorching rebuke from Roberts, who called it “contrived.” He sided with the court’s four liberal justices in sending the case back to a lower court to see whether there is a “genuine” justification to ask about citizenship. He gets credit for trying to uphold the integrity of the legal process in a town that has sadly forgotten it.
President Donald Trump tweeted from overseas that he now wants to delay the census so his lawyers can give this scheme a second try. That’s a waste of time; no one believes the administration’s motives are valid.