Supreme Court Says Partisan Gerrymandering Is Outside Of Its Purview


By Victoria Ratliff

INDIANAPOLIS—The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday 5-4 along conservative-liberal lines that the federal courts don’t have a role in policing partisan gerrymandering.

“The Supreme Court had the opportunity today to put an end to partisan gerrymandering once and for all, and they chose not to do that,” said Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana.

In making that decision, the nation’s high court turned its back on voters, she added, which is why her organization in partnership with others will continue to work for redistricting reform in the Indiana General Assembly.

The Supreme Court issued the gerrymandering ruling in two cases—North Carolina where district lines were drawn to favor Republicans and Maryland where they were drawn to favor Democrats.

Chief Justice John Roberts, in writing for the majority, said partisan gerrymandering, or the issue of drawing legislative district maps to benefit one party over the other, is not a matter for the federal courts.

After reciting a brief history of gerrymandering in the United States, Roberts wrote:

“To hold that legislators cannot take partisan interest into account when drawing district lines would essentially countermand the Framers’ decision to entrust districting to political entities. The ‘central problem’ is not determining whether a jurisdiction has engaged in partisan gerrymandering. It is ‘determining when political gerrymandering has gone too far.”

Roberts concluded that the parties in both the Maryland and North Carolina cases were asking the courts to determine what’s fair when legislative boundary lines are drawn.

“Excessive partisanship in districting leads to results that reasonably seem unjust,” Roberts wrote. “But the fact that such ger­rymandering is ‘incompatible with democratic principles’ does not mean that the solution lies with the federal judi­ciary.

“We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.”

Justice Elena Kagan, writing a strong dissent, said that partisan gerrymandering deprives citizens of their right to participate equally in the political process.

“For the first time ever, this Court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities,” she said.

Roberts noted in his opinion that some states have turned over legislative redistricting to nonpartisan, independent commissions.

But in Indiana, efforts to get the state legislature to support redistricting reforms and create an independent group to do the job have failed repeatedly.

Vaughn said Common Cause and the Indiana Coalition for Independent Redistricting won’t give up. The group, which includes the Hoosier Environmental Council and the League of Women Voters among other, has one last chance in the 2020 legislative session for redistricting reforms to pass. That is because new legislative district boundaries will be drawn in 2021, after the results of the 2020 census are finalized.

Even if the group fails to get an independent commission created, members can still work with lawmakers to create a more transparent and open process to draw the lines, Vaughn said.

“For too long the general assembly has had a monopoly on this process,” she said. “We can use technology to open this up to every Hoosier who has an interest and an idea.”

Voters are living with district boundary lines drawn after the 2010 census which gave Republicans overwhelming majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly.

In 2018 general election, for example, Republican challenger Mike Braun defeated incumbent Democrat Joe Donnelly for the U.S. Senate seat by a 55% to 45% margin, a split that roughly reflects the divide between the two parties across Indiana.

But the composition of the Indiana House and Senate doesn’t reflect those percentages. In the House, Democrats hold 33 of 100 seats and in the Senate, 10 of 50 seats, which gives Republicans a supermajority in both chambers. As a result, Democrats are not needed for a quorum to conduct business.

Indiana’s delegation in the U.S. House is equally lopsided—seven of nine members are Republicans, or 78%.

Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, released a statement on the ruling. He said that legislators need to act in the absence of the court’s ability to step in.

Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, agreed.

“We will no longer be able to fall back on the ability of the federal government to prevent politicians from choosing their voters instead of the other way around,” he said.

Vaughn said gerrymandering undermines democracy because “it’s telling Hoosiers that ‘your vote counts less than your neighbors across town.”

Victoria Ratliff is a reporter for, a news website powered by Franklin College journalists.


  1. So, this “reporter” wants to overthrow the Constitution? Nowhere, NOWHERE, does the Constitution even imply the federal government has any power what so ever in the creation of legislative districts in the States. While Kagan might wish to divine such power from thin air, as was done with Roe v. Wade, Roberts actually decided to base his opinion on the Constitution this time. A small miracle, yes, for the weak moderate CJ.

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