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Supreme Court rules partisan gerrymandering is OK

By David G. Savage • Updated Jun 27, 2019 at 4:39 PM

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the partisan gerrymandering that has allowed Republicans to control power in several closely divided states. A majority ruled that elected lawmakers, not judges, have right to draw the election maps for their states.

Gerrymandering refers to the practice of manipulating district boundaries to achieve a political advantage for a particular party or group.

“We want elected representatives who are accountable to the people making decisions on district lines, not unelected bureaucrats,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Urbana), whose 4th Congressional District includes Norwalk and northern Huron County.

The decision is a defeat for reformers who said politicians were unfairly denying voters the right to fair and equal representation.

“The Supreme Court failed Ohioans today,” U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown said. “Voters should be picking their representatives, not politicians picking their voters. This Supreme Court has repeatedly put its thumb on the scale of justice for corporations over workers, Wall Street over consumers, drug companies over patients and today politics over voters.”

The decision, written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., came on a 5-4 vote, with other conservatives joining him. Roberts said the claims “present political questions beyond reach of the courts.”

Last year, Ohio voters overwhelmingly passed Issue 1 — a ballot initiative that aimed to limit partisan gerrymandering and implement controls to ensure Congressional districts make geographical sense and that both parties have a voice in the process. This new law will take effect beginning with the 2022 congressional elections.

In May, a three-judge panel unanimously ruled that Ohio’s gerrymandered Congressional maps were unconstitutional and had to be redrawn because they were the result of partisan, Republican-drawn maps that disproportionately favored Republicans. The court ordered a new map to be drawn before the 2020 elections.

Last month, the Supreme Court put on hold that gerrymandering ruling.

Thursday’s decision means new maps will not be drawn in Ohio until 2022. Brown called today’s decision a slap in the face to Ohio voters.

"It's up to the people of Ohio to determine how congressional lines are drawn, not a handful of unelected judges — and that's exactly what Ohio did last year when they overwhelmingly approved our redistricting reform initiative,” Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said.

“Thanks to that effort, soon Republicans and Democrats will begin working for the first time as true partners in the effort to fairly draw congressional districts,” LaRose added. “As Ohio’s chief elections officer, I’m certainly appreciative of the Supreme Court’s affirmation of federalism and the separation of powers, and I look forward to continuing to work with our county boards of elections to administer fair, accurate and secure elections across our great state.”

The high court had two cases before it in which states were appealing gerrymandering rulings. Justices overturned both lower court rulings and said the cases should be dismissed.

In North Carolina, Republican leaders admitted they drew an election map for “partisan advantage” and sought to lock in victory for 10 of 13 congressional districts.

In Maryland, Democratic leaders shifted hundreds of thousands of voters with the aim of ousting a veteran Republican from Congress and creating a reliably Democratic district.

Partisan gerrymandering has been widely denounced for effectively allowing politicians to pick their voters. If one party controls the state government, its leaders can draw an election map that all but guarantees their candidates will win a lopsided majority of the seats for the next decade.

“The court’s decision to allow the practice of gerrymandering to continue, to flourish, and to evade review by the judicial system, leaves it in the hands of those who will continue to abuse their awesome power whenever they can to defeat the will of the voters,” said Freda Levenson, legal director for the ACLU of Ohio. “In Ohio, this means that in the 2020 election, the map, rather than the electorate, will once again determine who occupies each of our congressional seats.”

The high court has struggled to decide when politics goes too far and crosses a constitutional line. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. had long been skeptical of the court’s power to intervene in these political disputes. Last year, he engineered a procedural ruling that scuttled a gerrymandering case from Wisconsin.

That has not prevented lower court judges from striking down skewed election maps in at least six states, including in North Carolina and Maryland. In January, the justices agreed to hear appeals from both states.

Last month, the court also put on hold a gerrymandering ruling in Michigan. In all four cases — those in Ohio Michigan, North Carolina and Maryland — judges said the politicians had deprived voters of a fair and equal voice by drawing districts that entrenched one party in power.

"Ohio voters already elected to redesign our line-drawing process by a Constitutional Amendment,” Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said. “Power to legislate belongs to the legislature, or to the people — not to the courts. Today's decision is in line with these principles."

 

Supreme Court refuses to approve citizenship question on 2020 census

Also Thursday, the Supreme Court refused to uphold an effort to ask all households about the citizenship of their residents as part of the 2020 census, delivering a political blow to the Trump administration and a victory for California. They sent the matter back to a lower court for review.

In a ruling by Roberts, the court said the Trump administration did not adequately explain its reason for adding the question. “In these unusual circumstances, the district court was warranted in remanding to the agency and we affirm that disposition,” Roberts said.

The court did not finally decide the issue, but said the Trump administration has so far failed to justify the change.

“Reasoned decision-making under the Administrative Procedure Act calls for an explanation for agency action. What was provided here was more of a distraction,” Roberts said.

Last year, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross decided to add a citizenship question to all forms for the first time since 1950.

Census experts, citing the climate of fear in immigrant communities, predicted that millions of households will refuse to participate if the question is asked. This in turn could produce a severe under-count in states such as California and Texas, and lead to a loss of government funds and political power for the next decade.

"It should not be controversial to ask how many American citizens are in the United States of America,” said Jordan, a ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. “The only people who don't want to know are Democrats in Congress. Democrats went to work to influence the Supreme Court's consideration --cherry-picking facts to create misleading narratives, repeating baseless conspiracy theories, and manufacturing controversy."

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Norwalk Reflector staff and David G. Savage of the Los Angeles Times (TNS) contributed to this story.

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