A chance to cage the ger­ry­man­der

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - Op/ed -

The Supreme Court con­venes Mon­day af­ter its sum­mer re­cess and on Tues­day takes up a case that could end ex­treme par­ti­san ger­ry­man­der­ing.

Jus­tices will hear ar­gu­ments in Gill v. Whit­ford, a case from Wis­con­sin where, af­ter Repub­li­cans took com­plete con­trol of the state gov­ern­ment in 2010, the state leg­is­la­ture re­drew state As­sem­bly dis­tricts, re­sult­ing, a fed­eral court ruled, in un­con­sti­tu­tional par­ti­san ger­ry­man­der­ing.

The plan pur­posely fa­vored Repub­li­cans and hurt Democrats to such a de­gree that it vi­o­lated the con­sti­tu­tional guar­an­tees of the 14th Amend­ment equal pro­tec­tion clause and the First Amend­ment right of as­so­ci­a­tion, the dis­trict court ruled.

Wis­con­sin ap­pealed, say­ing its plan does not vi­o­late the Con­sti­tu­tion and, be­sides, par­ti­san ger­ry­man­der­ing is noth­ing new. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and granted the state’s re­quest to block the lower court’s or­der to cre­ate a new re­dis­trict­ing plan by fall.

Jus­tice Ruth Bader Gins­burg says Gill could be the most im­por­tant case of the en­tire term.

And she told CBS’s Char­lie Rose Tues­day: “It’s draw­ing a map so peo­ple think, ‘Why bother vot­ing? This is a se­cure Repub­li­can dis­trict or this is a se­cure Demo­cratic dis­trict, so my vote doesn’t count.’ That’s not a good thing for democ­racy.”

Ger­ry­man­der­ing cre­ates “safe” po­lit­i­cal dis­tricts that make gen­eral elec­tions un­com­pet­i­tive and give party in­sid­ers greater power than con­stituents, a bi­par­ti­san group of cur­rent and former mem­bers of Congress said in a friend of the court brief, one of dozens filed in the case. Rep. Don Beyer, Demo­crat of Vir­ginia, was among the brief’s sign­ers.

The Supreme Court, mind­ful that re­dis­trict­ing is a state re­spon­si­bil­ity, has been re­luc­tant to rule on po­lit­i­cal ger­ry­man­der­ing dis­putes, although it has kept a watch­ful eye on racial ger­ry­man­der­ing.

A ques­tion for the court now is how much par­ti­san ger­ry­man­der­ing is too much.

Ju­di­cial tea leaf-read­ers say the Supreme Court, by putting the lower court’s rul­ing on hold, sug­gests it may side with the state. Much de­pends on swing vote Jus­tice An­thony Kennedy and whether a ma­jor­ity can agree on stan­dards for judg­ing whether re­dis­trict­ing plans are so par­ti­san as to be un­con­sti­tu­tional.

What­ever the court de­cides, two things are clear: Ger­ry­man­der­ing has been with us al­ways — and it erodes voter con­fi­dence and trust in gov­ern­ment.

Charles Led­yard Nor­ton tells the story of the term ger­ry­man­der in his 1890 book, “Po­lit­i­cal Amer­i­can­isms.”

Mas­sachusetts Gov. El­bridge Gerry signed a bill in 1811 that ad­justed leg­isla­tive dis­trict lines. When artist Gil­bert Stu­art took a look at the map, he pen­ciled in a few lines and told a Bos­ton news­pa­per ed­i­tor: “That will do for a sala­man­der.”

“Sala­man­der?” the ed­i­tor ri­posted. “Call it a Ger­ry­man­der.”

Poor Gerry has been car­ry­ing the ger­ry­man­der bur­den ever since. But should he?

One of the first ger­ry­man­der­ing episodes ac­tu­ally took place years be­fore in Vir­ginia.

An “at­mos­phere of bit­ter­ness” hung over the first fed­eral elec­tion in Vir­ginia in 1789, fol­low­ing Vir­ginia’s un­con­di­tional adop­tion months ear­lier of the Con­sti­tu­tion, the ed­i­tors of the James Madi­son pa­pers ex­plain.

Gov. Pa­trick Henry, a leader of the anti-Fed­er­al­ists, wanted re­venge on the Fed­er­al­ists, so he changed vot­ing lines to make Fed­er­al­ist James Madi­son run against anti-Fed­er­al­ist James Mon­roe for a seat in the U.S. House. Henry made Or­ange County part of an eight-county dis­trict that was strongly anti-Fed­er­al­ist and had op­posed rat­i­fy­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion.

Madi­son cam­paigned hard, and in the end he beat Mon­roe by 336 votes out of 2,280 cast.

In his bi­og­ra­phy of Henry in the late 1890s, Moses Coit Tyler wrote: “Surely it was a rare bit of luck in the case of Pa­trick Henry that the wits of Vir­ginia did not an­tic­i­pate the wits of Mas­sachusetts by de­scrib­ing this trick as ‘hen­ry­man­der­ing,’”

Henry “thus nar­rowly es­caped the ugly im­mor­tal­ity of hav­ing his name handed down from age to age in the coinage of a base word which should des­ig­nate a base thing — one of the fa­vorite, shabby ma­neu­vers of less scrupu­lous Amer­i­can politi­cians,” Tyler wrote.

Yes, Henry was lucky, but Amer­i­can vot­ers are still vic­tims of the shabby ma­neu­ver.

Ger­ry­man­der­ing may be as Amer­i­can as Pa­trick Henry, but if vot­ers are lucky, the Supreme Court will agree with Gins­burg that ex­treme par­ti­san ger­ry­man­der­ing is bad for democ­racy — and end it.


This Ten Com­mand­ments mon­u­ment was re­moved from the ro­tunda of the Alabama Ju­di­cial Build­ing in Mont­gomery by fed­eral court or­der Aug. 27, 2003. Then-Chief Jus­tice Roy Moore, who had re­fused to obey that or­der, was re­moved from of­fice.



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