High Court rul­ings have pro­found im­pli­ca­tions for Amer­i­can pol­i­tics

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Insight - BY MICHAEL WINES

The rul­ings by the Supreme Court on Thurs­day in bit­terly con­tested bat­tles over par­ti­san ger­ry­man­der­ing and the ad­di­tion of a ci­ti­zen­ship ques­tion to the 2020 cen­sus grap­pled with is­sues fun­da­men­tal to the na­tion’s democ­racy: how power is al­lo­cated, and ul­ti­mately, how much of a voice the Amer­i­can peo­ple have in se­lect­ing their lead­ers.

But far from set­tling these ques­tions, the court has un­leashed even higher-pitched and par­ti­san strug­gles over once-set­tled aspects of the coun­try’s gov­er­nance, plac­ing greater pres­sures on the na­tion’s po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

Ger­ry­man­dered maps were once part of an un­spo­ken agree­ment be­tween ri­vals that press­ing for po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage was, within lim­its, part of the elec­toral game. But in re­cent years Repub­li­cans, aided by so­phis­ti­cated map­mak­ing soft­ware, have given them­selves near-un­break­able power across the coun­try.

Now, with a green light from the jus­tices, the party has an op­por­tu­nity to lock in po­lit­i­cal dom­i­nance for the next decade in many of the 22 states where it con­trols both the leg­is­la­ture and the gov­er­nor’s of­fice.

The de­ci­sion will al­most cer­tainly force Democrats, who con­trol 14 state­houses, to re­con­sider their be­lated cru­sade against ger­ry­man­dered maps and be­gin draw­ing their own – an eat-or-be-eaten re­sponse to Repub­li­can suc­cess in gam­ing the re­dis­trict­ing process.

“Ex­pect the abuse to be su­per­charged,” said Justin Le­vitt, an as­so­ciate dean at Loy­ola Law School and a Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cial dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. “Now the an­swer will be, ‘It happens ev­ery­where.’ Ex­pect the dis­ease to spread.”

The jus­tices also did not re­solve what to do about adding a ci­ti­zen­ship ques­tion to the cen­sus, which un­til re­cently was re­garded as a non­par­ti­san ritual every 10 years for the coun­try to ob­tain an ac­cu­rate head count of its res­i­dents. Now it is the ob­ject of a le­gal fire­fight over charges that it is be­ing perverted for par­ti­san gain.

Adding a ci­ti­zen­ship ques­tion to the cen­sus could have a pro­found im­pact on Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, as the coun­try re­lies on pop­u­la­tion fig­ures from the cen­sus to divvy up seats in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and to draw po­lit­i­cal maps at all lev­els of gov­ern­ment.

The Cen­sus Bureau it­self has said that adding the ques­tion would lead more nonci­t­i­zens and mi­nor­ity res­i­dents to avoid be­ing counted. Be­cause most of these peo­ple live in pre­dom­i­nantly Demo­cratic ar­eas, the un­der­count would weaken Demo­cratic rep­re­sen­ta­tion in states with large num­bers of nonci­t­i­zens and skew the al­lot­ment of bil­lions of fed­eral dol­lars away from those ar­eas.

But by rul­ing that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fered no cred­i­ble rea­son for propos­ing the ques­tion, the jus­tices placed a daunt­ing hur­dle be­fore the gov­ern­ment, which must print ques­tion­naires and other 2020 cen­sus doc­u­ments within months, if not weeks, to keep the head count on sched­ule.

In their rul­ings Thurs­day, the jus­tices stated point­edly that their de­ci­sions were le­gal opin­ions, not po­lit­i­cal ones.

“No one can ac­cuse this court of hav­ing a crabbed view of its reach or com­pe­tence,” Chief Jus­tice John Roberts wrote for the ma­jor­ity in the par­ti­san maps cases. “But we have no com­mis­sion to al­lo­cate po­lit­i­cal power and in­flu­ence in the ab­sence of a con­sti­tu­tional di­rec­tive.”

But pre­cisely be­cause the ger­ry­man­der­ing and cen­sus cases were so deeply di­vi­sive, their res­o­lu­tion seems likely to re­ver­ber­ate through the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, re­gard­less of which po­lit­i­cal camp claims vic­tory.

The rul­ings Thurs­day only raise the stakes of elec­tions across the coun­try next year. The fo­cus will now be on a hand­ful of states like Texas, North Carolina and Ge­or­gia where po­lit­i­cal con­trol is in­creas­ingly up for grabs and the fruits of vic­tory – con­trol over the map­ping of scores of con­gres­sional dis­tricts, not to men­tion state leg­isla­tive seats – are es­pe­cially rich.


The Supreme Court handed Repub­li­cans a vic­tory by re­fus­ing to halt ger­ry­man­dered maps. But Democrats may have a win on the cen­sus ques­tion on ci­ti­zen­ship.

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