Justices Rule Courts Can’t Intervene in Maryland Gerrymandering Case
Montgomery delegation leader says state redistricting unlikely before 2021
Bethesda Beat Photo
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Thursday that Maryland won’t be required to redraw congressional districts before the 2020 election in a case that addressed allegations of gerrymandering by a Democratic legislature to hurt Republicans in a district that included parts of Montgomery County.
The court’s decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, said, “Partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.”
A federal court last year ordered Maryland to redraw its districts in a case brought by Republican voters who alleged that the current boundaries disenfranchise them by diluting their voting power in the 6th District, which includes conservative areas of Western Maryland.
Before the new borders, the district was held by a Republican, Roscoe Bartlett, for 20 years. The seat is now held by David Trone, a Democrat, who succeeded John Delaney, a Democrat who is running for president.
Bartlett was elected 10 times to the House under the old boundaries, which incorporated less of Montgomery County. The new lines included more of heavily Democratic Montgomery.
In a statement, Trone wrote that a “national standard to end partisan gerrymandering” is needed and called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, to bring such legislation to a vote.
“As a country we must strive towards a national solution to end gerrymandering and other practices that put the interest of politicians over the will of the people. I will continue to do this in my capacity as a representative and support policies that benefit all of the people of Maryland and the United States, regardless of their political affiliations,” Trone wrote.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) wrote in a statement that the ruling was “terribly disappointing to all who believe in fair elections.”
“I pledge to vigorously continue this fight, both in Maryland and across our nation. Gerrymandering is wrong, and both parties are guilty. It stifles real political debate, contributes to our bitter partisan polarization, and deprives citizens of meaningful choices. The voters should pick their representatives, not the other way around. I will do everything in my power to restore free and fair elections for the people,” he wrote.
“The Supreme Court agrees that this is a matter for states and legislatures to address. Next year, I will again introduce redistricting reform legislation in Maryland to put the drawing of districts in the hands of a balanced, fair, and nonpartisan commission—instead of partisan politicians. This is a problem we can, should, and must solve. It is, and will continue to be, one of my highest priorities as governor.”
In the decision issued on the last day of the court’s schedule, Roberts wrote “There are no legal standards discernible in the Constitution for making such judgments, let alone limited and precise standards that are clear, manageable, and politically neutral. Any judicial decision on what is ‘fair’ in this context would be an ‘unmoored determination’ of the sort characteristic of a political question beyond the competence of the federal courts.”
Roberts was joined by associate justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch in the ruling.
Dissenting were associate justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer.
Roberts wrote that the traditional three-part test that has been used to determine gerrymandering, which prohibits the practice based on discrimination, partisan intent or harm to the voters, do not apply to the Maryland case.
The case also addressed election district issues in North Carolina.
Kagan, who wrote the dissenting opinion, said the “districting plans at issue here are highly partisan, by any measure.
“Of all times to abandon the Court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one. The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the Court’s role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections,” Kagan wrote.
A nine-member commission put together by Hogan had released a redrawn map of the 6th District this spring, which incorporates areas north and west of Germantown.
Under this map, Gaithersburg and North Potomac, which are currently in Trone’s district, would be instead incorporated into the more heavily-Democratic 8th district, which is represented by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D), and includes the rest of the county.
State Del. Marc Korman, a Bethesda Democrat and the chairman of Montgomery County’s House delegation, said the court’s decision “negates the need to act before the next decennial redistricting.”
“I expect we will see further pushes to change the system of redistricting as a whole in Maryland between then and now, but the Supreme Court’s ruling makes any immediate action unlikely,” Korman wrote.
The current congressional district lines were drawn in 2011, following the last census, during Gov. Martin O’Malley’s (D) administration. O’Malley ater acknowledged that his state was guilty of gerrymandering, and has called for a national solution. Maryland must redraw the boundaries of all eight congressional districts in 2021, following the next census.
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org