In a 5-4 decision along traditional conservative-liberal ideological lines, the Supreme Court ruled that partisan redistricting is a political question, not reviewable by federal courts, and can't judge if extreme gerrymandering violates the constitution.
That means North Carolina's congressional maps were not struck down, and the court ruled the only way to change them was through political will. The majority opinion, while upholding the maps, acknowledged that the maps are, in fact, highly gerrymandered. The decision could embolden political line-drawing for partisan gain when state lawmakers undertake the next round of redistricting following the 2020 census.
"The districting plans at issue here are highly partisan, by any measure," according to the majority opinion, which was written by Chief Justice John Roberts. "The question is whether the courts below appropriately exercised judicial power when they found them unconstitutional as well."
Roberts continued: "We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts. Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions."
Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the court's four liberals, noted in an impassioned dissent: "Of all times to abandon the Court's duty to declare the law, this was not the one. The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the Court's role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections. With respect but deep sadness, I dissent."
The Court's Ruling Came in Two Cases
In Maryland, Democrats who controlled the state legislature drew new lines for congressional districts to eliminate one of the state's two GOP seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. In North Carolina, where Republicans controlled the state legislature, they used the same tactics to isolate and limit Democratic power, and maximize their own.
By some measures, North Carolina's congressional maps were the most gerrymandered in the nation. Republicans won 10 of the 13 seats. But in tallying the vote share of the entire state, Republicans won just 51 percent of the vote. Of course, congressional representatives are elected by district – not the state as a whole. The Republican-led North Carolina legislature drew the maps, and drew districts in such a way that Democrats were packed into three districts, and spread out over the other 10. That means Democrats won by a wide margin in those three districts, and lost narrowly in the other 10.
That unequal balance can be measured by what is called an efficiency gap. An efficiency gap of zero would indicate perfectly fair maps, while a gap of 100 would indicate maps that are perfectly unfair. North Carolina's efficiency gap was 23.67 for the maps that were challenged, the third highest in the nation to faor Republicans behind only West Virginia and Nebraska, states that are smaller than North Carolina. That gap led to Republicans controlling 2.84 more seats in North Carolina than they should have, if the efficiency gap were completely fair. That also ranks as the third highest in the nation, behind Texas and Ohio, states that are larger.
Hover over the map below to see each state's efficiency gap and number of excess seats.
Said another way, when controlling for state size, North Carolina's maps were the most egregiously gerrymandered to favor Republicans in the nation. Democrats have also gerrymandered maps, particularly in Maryland and California.
Proponents of limiting partisan gerrymandering still have several routes open to them, including challenges in state courts. There is a pending North Carolina lawsuit.
Common Cause brought the challenge that ended with Thursday's Supreme Court decision. On Twitter, the group's President Karen Hobert Flynn expressed her disappointment with the ruling.
"The American people must continue to take the battle to the state courts, to the polls, and to the streets, to make their voices heard and to end partisan gerrymandering once and for all," she wrote. "To bring about fair maps, the people must continue to make their voice heard through ballot initiatives, new state laws, and appeals to state courts to reform the redistricting process."
"The American people must continue to take the battle to the state courts, to the polls, and to the streets, to make their voices heard and to end partisan gerrymandering once and for all.” - @KHobertFlynn#SCOTUS #FairMaps— Common Cause (@CommonCause) June 27, 2019
The Associated Press contributed to this report.