Supreme Court’s Great Decision on Redistricting

June 29, 2015

Today’s decision on the Arizona redistricting case is cause for celebration.

In their 5-4 ruling, the liberal justices, along with Anthony Kennedy, ruled that the people of Arizona, by initiative, were on firm legal ground when they took redistricting out of the hands of the legislature in 2000 and placed it in the hands of an independent commission. The voters of Arizona did so because they were outraged at partisan gerrymandering and sought to improve “ voter and candidate participation in elections.”

The legislature appealed on the grounds that it violated the U.S. Constitution’s Election Clause, which gives to legislatures the authority over “times, places, and manner of holding elections.”

Writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg rejected this argument: “The Elections Clause, however, is not reasonably read to disarm States from adopting modes of legislation that place the lead rein in the people’s hands.” She added: “It would be perverse to interpret the term “Legislature” in the Elections Clause so as to exclude lawmaking by the people, particularly where such lawmaking is intended to check legislators’ ability to choose the district lines they run in.”

This is a tremendous victory for democracy. The gerrymandering that is done every ten years makes a joke of representative government and effectively muffles the voices of millions of voters.

Map: Control of redistricting by party.

There is a movement afoot across the country to curb this gerrymandering. Arizona took the lead, as did California, in having independent commissions. Other states, such as Hawaii, Idaho, and New Jersey, have versions of these, and several other states have mechanisms in place for deciding redistricting that don’t depend on the legislatures themselves.

All of these efforts, as well as other electoral reforms, were in jeopardy if the Court ruled against the people of Arizona.

As far as Wisconsin goes, which was egregiously redistricted by the Republican legislature in 2011, the decision is less clear since it relied, in part, on Arizona’s own state constitution, which powerfully provides for direct democracy through initiatives, which Wisconsin’s does not.

But the philosophical underpinnings of the ruling should be helpful in every state. The Court noted that “our fundamental instrument of government derives its authority from ‘We the People,’ and that “the invention of the initiative was in full harmony with the Constitution’s conception of the people as the font of governmental power.” And it warned against manipulation of electoral rules by politicians and factions in the State to entrench themselves or place their interests above the electorate.”

The Wisconsin Constitution says that after every Census, “the legislature shall apportion and district anew the members of the senate and assembly, according to the number of inhabitants.”

Working within this context, a bipartisan group of legislators have co-sponsored Senate Bill 58, which would direct the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau to draw the new district boundaries based upon certain objective criteria. For instance, the districts must be contiguous and compact.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign has endorsed Senate Bill 58 and encourages citizens to contact their legislators and urge them to support it.