Supreme Court Overturns Michigan Gerrymandering Ruling

By GQ Pan

The U.S. Supreme Court has killed a lower court ruling that attempted to invalidate Republican-drawn congressional and state legislative voting maps of Michigan.

The decision that came out on Oct. 21 has been expected since June, when the Supreme Court ruled that federal courts have no role to play in limiting politicians from manipulating voting lines in two major gerrymandering cases from Maryland and North Carolina.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing on behalf of the conservative majority in a 5-4 decision on North Carolina and Maryland’s lawsuits (pdf) seeking to throw out their legislative maps as unconstitutional, said that partisan gerrymandering claims present “political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.”

“Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions,” wrote Roberts, noting that even though “excessive partisanship” in the drawing of districts could produce results that “reasonably seem unjust,” it is not the judiciary’s job to set a standard for drawing a fair electoral map.

“What the appellees and dissent seek is an unprecedented expansion of judicial power,” Roberts wrote in the decision. “We have never struck down a partisan gerrymander as unconstitutional—despite various requests over the past 45 years.”

“‘It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is,'” Wrote Roberts, citing John Marshall’s opinion in Marbury v. Madison, the monumental case that established the principle of judicial review and helped define the boundary between the three branches of the U.S. government. “In this rare circumstance, that means our duty is to say ‘this is not law.'”

A similar case from Ohio, in which a lower court invalidated gerrymandered congressional districts, was also sent back for dismissal earlier this month. The Supreme Court’s decision ensured that Ohio’s current voting maps would remain in place for the 2020 election.

A three-judge federal panel in April 2018 ruled that Michigan maps adopted in 2011 by the Republican-led Legislature have to be redrawn for the upcoming presidential election, saying they were designed to give the Republican voters an edge over their Democratic competitors.

The “predominate purpose” of the voting maps was to “subordinate the interests of Democratic voters and entrench Republicans in power,” wrote Clinton-appointed U.S. Circuit Judge Eric L. Clay in the unanimous group decision (pdf). Clay was joined by Judge Denise Page Hood, another Clinton appointee, and Judge Gordon Quist, who was appointed by George H.W. Bush.