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This Supreme Court gerrymandering case could redraw the political landscape

The Supreme Court delved again into the high-stakes debate over what is and isn't allowed when lawmakers draw electoral districts. In the latest case, the court heard arguments over whether a Maryland district was redrawn to help Democrats. Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss the details and the potential ramifications.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Supreme Court delved once again into a high- stakes, long-running political debate today: What is and isn't allowed when lawmakers draw electoral districts?

    Jeffrey Brown explores the legal dividing lines.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In October, the court heard a case from Wisconsin, arguing the state's political map had been unconstitutionally redrawn to favor Republicans.

    Today, another case, another state, with a claim that a Maryland district was redrawn to help Democrats.

    As always, Marcia Coyle, chief Washington correspondent for "The National Law Journal," was in the courtroom for the arguments.

    Welcome back, first.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Thanks, Jeff.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And, first, this term extreme party gerrymandering, we know politics is always involved in this.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Absolutely.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But it's the question of how far can you go.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    That's right. That's the exact question, and, also, how do you measure it? What kind of a test or standard do you use to root it out?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, tell us about the Maryland case.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Back in 2013, a group of Republican voters filed a lawsuit claiming that the Democratic Maryland General Assembly had engaged in a partisan gerrymander when it redrew the district lines for the 6th Congressional District.

    The General Assembly had basically flipped it from a safe Republican district to a Democratic district. These voters claimed that that was a violation of their First Amendment rights, because they were singled out and retaliated against because of their voting views.

    A lower federal court wouldn't issue an injunction, temporary injunction, blocking that map of the 6th District. And the voters brought that case to the Supreme Court.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And, as I said, the court heard this earlier case in Wisconsin. The legal argument in Maryland was the First Amendment, different from Wisconsin.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Right.

    In the Wisconsin case, the challengers, who did win after a trial, had based their claim on the Equal Protection Clause. They said that the state legislature had cracked and packed Democratic votes in order to dilute their effectiveness. That was a violation of equal protection of law.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    OK, so what did you hear today in the court?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Well, basically, I think there were three things. Almost immediately off the bat, Justice Ginsburg and Justice Kennedy wondered, is it to late to be dealing with this because of the November midterm elections?

    And anything the court decided in favor of these voters, was there time enough for the lower court to see that a new map could be adopted?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, because they don't want to decide things that are moot?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    That's right.

    And Justice Kennedy pointed out that, if they did that, wouldn't we — wouldn't the court be upsetting settled expectations, disrupting the election process?

    So that was, obviously, very much on their minds and might portend a narrow ruling, if enough justices feel strongly that they don't want to go down that road.

    The bulk of the arguments really focused on the legal theory here, the First Amendment. Jeff, as you know, in 2004, the court kind of threw up its hands about partisan gerrymandering, saying, we can't come up with a test, a standard that lower courts can use.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's interesting. It's one of these things that's been around forever, but the court has never been able to — never decided it.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Right, exactly.

    And when the court took the Wisconsin and the Maryland case, it sort of indicated they were willing to try again to find that test. Is it the First Amendment? Justice Alito was skeptical. He said that he felt that, under that legal theory, a legislature would never be able to redistrict.

    If even the — if there was just a trifle bit of partisanship, there could be a constitutional violation. Justice Kennedy seemed a little more open to it. In fact, he said he felt that, you know, this might be the kind of case where the First Amendment does fit.

    So, you came away thinking, well, you know, here we go again. They seem decided, unsure as to whether the First Amendment is the right test.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And the political implications are potentially major.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Absolutely.

    Whatever the court decides, especially if it finds a test, could revamp how districts are drawn across the country. And it's also very important for your right to vote.

    I mean, if you live in a district that has been rejiggered, its lines rejiggered, so that the outcome is foreordained, are you going to vote? Do you feel your vote has any value? And I think that's the other big consideration here as to why the justices are looking at this.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    They're very aware of the potential implications.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    They are, as well as the possibility that they could be opening the door to many partisan gerrymandering lawsuits.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, Marcia Coyle, as always, "National Law Journal," thank you very much.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    My pleasure, Jeff.

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