High Court rulings have profound implications for American politics
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.