Surveying The Landscape As SCOTUS Looks At North Carolina's Gerrymandering Case

Surveying The Landscape As SCOTUS Looks At North Carolina's Gerrymandering Case

2:16pm Mar 26, 2019
The west face of the Supreme Court of the United States in Washington D.C. (AP Photo/Mark Tenally)

North Carolina’s embattled congressional districts went before the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday in a case that has the potential to change the way legislative maps are drawn nationwide.

Last year, a federal court ruled those districts unconstitutional because it said they were created unfairly, using too much political bias.

This is a new tactic for the courts, which have previously thrown out racially gerrymandered maps, but have generally refused to intercede on politically engineered districts.

WFDD’s Sean Bueter spoke with Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer to find out more.

Interview Highlights

On why this case going before the U.S. Supreme Court is important:

It's a big deal because, for most of the nation's history, when legislators were redrawing districts, partisan gerrymandering was completely constitutional and completely legal because the courts – for a very long time – said "we are not going to get involved in this...political question." This is something best left to the political branches, either to the legislatures, the chief executives, or to the states. And the courts determined they could not interfere because there was no judicial standard by which to say "this is too much partisan gerrymandering, [or] this is okay per the Constitution."

Now we have the opportunity to say – if the courts decide to engage and involve themselves in North Carolina – it could potentially be an earthquake in terms of how the courts prepare themselves and intervene themselves into partisan gerrymandering.

On the arguments from each side:

I think the major argument for striking down partisan gerrymandering is that it has become too much. That, when you look at the state of North Carolina as an example, it tends to be a fairly competitive kind of state. But if you look within the districts, they are overwhelmingly gerrymandered to benefit one party over the other. And for North Carolina, the party that benefits is the Republican Party. Some would argue that does not represent North Carolina at all. And part of that is due to the fact of where voters live. Map drawers can isolate pockets of communities and basically create these heavy-handed districts leaning one way or the other.

I think the argument against the courts getting involved in partisan gerrymandering is "is it is political?" It is designed to be political. And the courts are going to have a very hard time answering the questions: When is there too much politics, and when is there not enough politics to make a map legal or not?

On what could happen if the Court decides to intervene:

Well that becomes the big question: What does the court say is the standard to judge future maps? Some of the people who are arguing against the courts getting involved would say: if you open up this door, you're going to have every state map challenged (so that's 50 different congressional maps). You're going to have thousands of state legislative districts being challenged. Potentially, you could work your way down to city council districts being challenged. And that just opens up a hornet's nest of, when the courts get involved in political questions of this kind: Where's the standard? Where do they draw the line for "this is too much" or "this is sufficient?" I think that's the biggest question and hurdle that the courts are going to have to overcome.

(Ed.: This transcription has been lightly edited for clarity.)

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