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What’s at stake in Supreme Court consideration of redistricting

Can electoral maps go too far in favoring one political party over the other? It’s a question the Supreme Court has previously left unresolved but is considering again as it takes up challenges to congressional maps drawn by North Carolina Republicans and Maryland Democrats. Amna Nawaz talks to National Law Journal’s Marcia Coyle about the challenge of a "manageable standard" for redistricting.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's a question with the potential to generate a sea change in American politics: Can states go too far when they draw election maps that favor one political party over the other?

    It's an issue the U.S. Supreme Court has left unresolved before and heard arguments on again today.

    Amna Nawaz has more.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In a pair of cases that could prove to be the most consequential of the term, justices heard challenges to congressional maps drawn by North Carolina Republicans and Maryland Democrats to maximize their chances of winning.

    Marcia Coyle is chief Washington correspondent for "The National Law Journal." She was in the courtroom for the arguments today.

    She joins me here now.

    Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Good to be back.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, the question is not, is this practice partisan, right? Both sides openly say, yes, we did it to improve our chances here.

    What is the question the justices are trying to answer?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Well, the justices are trying to get at excessive partisanship. As you say, partisanship is inherent in the process of redrawing congressional and state legislative lines.

    But when does it go so far that it violates the Constitution, and what part of the Constitution? So the justices today were hearing a variety of different tests from those who challenged the maps in North Carolina and a single congressional district in Maryland, trying to give them what the court has been looking for, for decades, a manageable standard to determine whether partisanship has gone too far.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    When you say they have been looking at for decades, it's worth pointing out this has been an issue they have considered many times before, right?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Well, they have.

    They just had two cases last term, as a matter of fact, a challenge to Wisconsin state legislative maps. And the Maryland case that was heard today also came last term. But the justices there didn't get to the merits of whether these were excessively partisan. Instead, they sent them back to the lower courts on more technical issues, like standing to sue, whether the plaintiffs, the challengers had a right to sue.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So the Maryland case is back before them. The North Carolina case is new.

    And I want to point something out and drive home just what we're talking about when we mention partisan gerrymandering.

    Take a look at this map. This is from Common Cause. This is one of the groups that is actually challenging the political gerrymandering there. That line is the district line. That cuts right through the campus of the nation's largest historically black college, basically bisects the campus, dividing those two populations, and diluting them into two strong Republican districts.

    That kind of stuff goes on all the time. It's crazy, when you look at a map like that. I have questions, but what were the questions the justices were asking today?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Well, again, the focus is on, do the courts have a role to play here? The Constitution, the Elections Clause, does give the authority to state legislatures to redistrict. Do the courts have a role?

    And if they do have a role, what is that standard? The court in prior cases has said at times, it's just not a justiciable issue. We don't have a manageable standard for weighing excessive partisanship.

    So the justices were asking a variety of questions. Justice Gorsuch, for example, was like, well, maybe the states are already dealing with this problem. I know, in Colorado and some other states, he said, they have moved to enact independent bipartisan commissions.

    So he said he senses a lot of movement in this area. But Justice Kagan was like, no, no. And the challengers said no also, because there are about 30 states that don't have those commissions.

    And the census is coming up, the 2020 census. And there will be redistricting right after that as well. So the court has been told they are the only ones that can solve the problem now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And it will matter what they say, whether they decide to rein in this practice or not, because what? What is at stake here in this decision?

  • Marcia Coyle:


    Justice Ginsburg has called this our precious right to vote. If you as a voter know that the outcome of an election in your district has been preordained, you are not going to vote, or if you have been, as they call, packed and cracked into some of those districts, like the one you just showed, the value of your vote is eroded.

    The right to vote, that precious right to vote, is the fundamental of our democracy. And that's what's at stake. And so, in the 20 — after the 2020 census, if there are no limits on partisan, excessive partisan gerrymandering, we may continue to see legislatures go whole hog in drafting district lines in a way to enhance continued control by the party that is drafting the lines.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Marcia Coyle, "The National Law Journal," always good to talk to you.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    My pleasure, Amna.

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