Supreme Court upholds independent redistricting commission

In a 5-4 ruling yesterday, with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg writing the controlling opinion, the Supreme Court upheld an independent redistricting commission set up by Arizona voters via a ballot initiative in 2000.

As Ginbsurg wrote in her ruling: “Arizona voters sought to restore the core principle of republican government, namely, that the voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around.”

As Greg Stohr at Bloomberg pointed out, the ruling only applies to the drawing of congressional districts, and does not affect the Arizona legislature’s ability to draw state-level district maps. What it does do, however, is allow the voters in a given state to take away their legislature’s right to draw district lines if they feel that there is another, more appropriate method. While Article 1, Section 4 of the Constitution stipulates that congressional district lines are determined by “the legislature thereof” in a given state, the Court agreed with lower court rulings that interpreted that to mean all legislative actions taken within a state, including ballot initiatives. So a ballot initiative that prescribes an alternate method by which to draw district lines does not violate that Constitutional principle.

As law professor Rick Hasen notes in Slate, the case bears an odd resemblance to King v Burwell, in which the Court upheld federal health insurance subsidies for the Affordable Care Act, in that the plaintiffs’ case hinged on a head-deskingly literal translation of the statute at hand. In King, the word was whether the Affordable Care Act’s designation of exchanges established by the “State” (not “state”) meant that only states could issue subsidies through exchanges, even if the federal government organized those exchanges. In Arizona State Legislature v Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, the question was whether “legislature” meant only formal state legislatures, or any binding legislative action. As argued in Ginsburg’s majority opinion, the Founders clearly did not intend the Elections Clause to allow state legislatures to override their own citizens if those citizens passed legally-binding legislation that took power away from them. The strict textualist interpretation held by the minority was, as in King, found to be unreasonable.

Currently, only two states — Arizona and California — have independent redistricting commissions with full power over drawing district lines. Eleven other states have some form of independent redistricting, but either their roles are limited or their members are appointed by politicians.

Illinois' 4th Congressional District, via Wikimedia Commons

Illinois’ 4th Congressional District, via Wikimedia Commons

If adopted nationwide, independent or nonpartisan redistricting could have far-reaching implications regarding the makeup of Congress and, by extension, what kinds of legislation lie within the realm of possibility for passage. While Democrats’ crowding into urban areas creates a natural gerrymander, Republicans’ control of state legislatures in 2010 exacerbated that trend. In 2012, Democrats received a majority of the popular vote for races in the House of Representatives but Republicans won a decisive majority of seats, and the discrepancy can be largely attributed to the way the district lines are drawn.

To that point, multiple states have had their district maps declared unconstitutional in recent years over claims that gerrymandering had been taken past the point of legal acceptability. Most recently, Virginia’s district map was ruled unconstitutional by a district court which held that Republicans in the state had used the Voting Rights Act to dilute the influence of minority voters by packing them too tightly into a small number of majority-minority districts.

Eight of Virginia’s eleven House members are Republicans, while all of its top statewide officeholders (both Senators, Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General) are Democrats. If the state had a panel like the one established by Arizona and upheld by the Court yesterday, that discrepancy would almost certainly be much, much smaller.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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One Response to “Supreme Court upholds independent redistricting commission”

  1. BeccaM says:

    Trying to stay within the realm of the possible (as opposed to suggesting a change to proportional representation in Congress), it should be pretty obvious that when actual representation is at odds with (and opposite to) the partisan voting patterns, there’s something wrong with the maps. In truth, as with Virginia there, it probably ought to be 6 Dems vs 5 GOPers, not 3 and 8.

    Non-partisan redistricting ought to be the rule, not the exception.

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