Partisan Gerrymandering: Another Supreme Court Showdown?

It would have been natural to assume that partisan gerrymandering would not return as an issue to the Supreme Court until next year at the earliest, the election calendar for this year being too far advanced. But yesterday a federal judicial panel ruled that North Carolina’s U.S. House lines were unconstitutionally biased toward the interests of the Republican Party and suggested that it might impose new lines for November’s vote, even though there would be no time in which to hold a primary for the revised districts. Conducting an election without a primary might seem like a radical remedy, but the court pointed to other offices for which the state of North Carolina provides for election without a preceding primary stage.

If the court takes such a step, it would seem inevitable that defenders of the map will ask for a stay of the ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court. In June, as we know, the Court declined to reach the big constitutional issues on partisan gerrymandering, instead finding ways to send the two cases before it (Gill v. Whitford from Wisconsin and Benisek v. Lamone from Maryland) back to lower courts for more processing. 

In my forthcoming article on Gill and Benisek in the Cato Supreme Court Review, I suggest that with the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who’d been the swing vote on the issue, litigators from liberal good-government groups might find it prudent to refrain for a while from steering the question back up to the high court, instead biding their time in hopes of new appointments. After all, Kennedy’s replacement, given current political winds, is likely to side with the conservative bloc. But a contrasting and far more daring tactic would be to take advantage of the vacancy to make a move in lower courts now. To quote Rick Hasen’s new analysis at Election Law Blog, “given the current 4-4 split on the Supreme Court, any emergency action could well fail, leaving the lower court opinion in place.” And Hasen spells out the political implications: “if the lower court orders new districts for 2018, and the Supreme Court deadlocks 4-4 on an emergency request to overturn that order, we could have new districts for 2018 only, and that could help Democrats retake control of the U.S. House.”

Those are very big “ifs,” however. As Hasen concedes, “We know that the Supreme Court has not liked interim remedies in redistricting and election cases close to the election, and it has often rolled back such changes.” Moreover, Justices Breyer and Kagan in particular have lately shown considerable willingness to join with conservatives where necessary to find narrow grounds for decision that keep the Court’s steps small and incremental, so as not to risk landmark defeats at the hands of a mobilized 5-4 conservative court. It would not be surprising if one or more liberal Justices join a stay of a drastic order in the North Carolina case rather than set up a 2019 confrontation in such a way as to ensure a maximally ruffled conservative wing.

Some of these issues might come up at Cato’s 17th annual Constitution Day Sept. 17 – mark your calendar now! – where I’ll be discussing the gerrymandering cases on the mid-afternoon panel.