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Justices take on fight over partisan electoral maps

19 June 2017

The lower court ruled that the Republican-led legislature's redrawing of state legislative districts in 2011 amounted to "an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander", a term meaning manipulating electoral boundaries for an unfair political advantage.

The action was announced in a list of orders that the court issued Monday.

The case was initially decided in November by a panel of two U.S. District Court judges and a U.S. Court of Appeals judge, which said in a 2-1 decision that the 2011 Republican re-draw of state Assembly boundaries is an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.

"I'm grateful the Supreme Court will hear our case and listen to our stories of how we are harmed", said Wendy Sue Johnson, one of the 12 plaintiffs challenging the Wisconsin State Assembly Districts in Whitford, in a statement.

In three landmark cases from 1962, 1986 and 2004, the high court has retained a role for itself to review partisan gerrymandering but has never defined how much is too much.

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As it stands now, the same court that struck down Wisconsin's map issued a separate 3-0 decision ordering the state Legislature to draw a new map by November 2017 so it would be ready in time for the 2018 election cycle.

Venturing into what one justice recently called the "always unsavory" process of drawing election districts for partisan advantage, the court will try to set a standard - something it has failed to do in the past.

While the precise schedule of Wisconsin's redistricting case is not yet known, experts say the court could hear oral arguments late this year or early next year, and a decision in the case is nearly sure to come by June 2018.

In its decision, the majority in the court panel decision wrote that the Assembly district map, which was drawn in the office of a Madison law firm that often represents Republican interests, "was meant to burden the representational rights of Democratic voters.by impeding their ability to translate their votes into legislative seats". But Justice Anthony Kennedy, 80, would not go that far; he may be the swing vote in the new case - if he doesn't retire over the summer.

What's different this time from past Supreme Court clashes is the existence of data-driven models to measure election results against other factors.

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"The court is surely aware that this decade produced some of the most aggressive partisan gerrymandering in the modern era". The GOP holds 13 of 18 congressional seats in the state.

"If the Supreme Court actually decides to rein in partisan gerrymandering, I think it would have the effect of helping Democrats in the short term, because there are more legislatures that are controlled by Republicans", Hasen said.

This "efficiency gap" identifies districting plans that are likely to accentuate one party's control over the 10-year life of the plans, said Eric McGhee, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California who helped develop the measurement.

A Supreme Court ruling faulting the Wisconsin redistricting plan could have far-reaching consequences for the redrawing of electoral districts due after the 2020 USA census.

Republicans aggressively gerrymandered Wisconsin after they gained unified control of state government in the 2010 midterm wave. In 2012, Republicans got just 48.6 percent of the vote statewide, but won 60 of the state's 99 Assembly districts.

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The post Supreme Court could decide if gerrymandering can be too political appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

Justices take on fight over partisan electoral maps