WWS Reacts [Audio]: Federal Courts & Gerrymandering

Jun 27 2019
By B. Rose Kelly
Topics Politics
Source Woodrow Wilson School

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal courts do not have to address partisan gerrymandering claims.

Sharing his response to this news in the audio clip below is Nolan McCarty, Susan Dod Brown Professor of Politics and Public Affairs, at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

McCarty’s research interests include U.S. politics, democratic political institutions, and political game theory. His new book, “Polarization: What Everyone Needs to Know,” publishes July 1 by Oxford University Press.

Click play to listen below; a transcript follows. Reporters are welcome to use without permissions; contact B. Rose Kelly for the raw audio file.

TRANSCRIPT: My feelings would have been mixed regardless of the verdict.

Of course, the partisan manipulation of legislative district boundaries is deeply concerning in the extent to which it can dilute the representation of the supporters of the minority party. Yet, I do have some reservations about the extent to which federal courts should be intervening in these issues. The primary one is that partisan gerrymandering is somewhat hard to detect and measure. The Republicans obtain a significant advantage in legislative districting through a pattern of political geography where Democratic voters are highly clustered in urban areas while Republican voters are more spread out. Thus, neutral boundaries that create compact and contiguous legislative districts can lead to a disproportionate number of GOP-held districts because Democratic votes get wasted in the cities.  It can be very hard to distinguish this “natural” gerrymander from deliberate partisan efforts to rig outcomes. While there have been a number of efforts to measure partisan gerrymanders, I am not persuaded that any of them do a very good job. In my experience, the courts are not very good at adjudicating these statistical disputes. Thus, judges are likely to choose those measures that given them the outcome that conforms to their ideological or partisan interests.

A second reason is that partisan gerrymandering may be necessary to obtain fairer partisan outcomes. Recall that Republicans have a natural advantage because Democrats are clustered in the cities. The way to offset this effect is to break cities into multiple districts that contain significant suburb populations. But because doing so would violate existing districting criteria of minimizing the fragmenting of municipalities, a judges might strike such a plan down for partisan gerrymandering.

Finally, given the growing polarization and partisanship among the federal judiciary, I think we need to be vigilant about having its power over these sorts of issues expand even more.

Obviously, the decision means that the current plans will presumably remain in effect through 2022. It is possible however for plans to be struck down under state constitutions as happened recently in Pennsylvania.

I would note however the plans in North Carolina and Michigan must be a curse for the GOP. A partisan GOP gerrymander is typically one in which the GOP gives itself a slight advantage in as many suburban districts as possible. If the GOP’s decline in the suburbs continues its trend from 2018, several of those districts may flip blue.

Although practical considerations give me some sympathy for the decision, I am troubled by what it says about the court. The decision was based on the doctrine of “political questions,” which holds that courts should not intervene in certain disputes involving the other branches of government. In theory, there is nothing inherently ideological or partisan about that doctrine. Yet, the votes on the Supreme Court followed a precise ideological pattern with all conservatives/Republicans supporting the majority opinion and all Democratic/liberal justices in the minority. But ironically, it is this judicial branch polarization which makes the political question doctrine an important one.

WWS Reacts is a series of interviews with Woodrow Wilson School experts addressing current events. These are the opinions of the faculty and do not reflect or represent Princeton University or the Woodrow Wilson School.