By David B. Rivkin Jr and Richard Raile
26 March 2019 in the Wall Street Journal
Not every day does the Supreme Court have a chance to advance democracy and reverse a major mistake while also lightening its future workload. But it can do all those things in two cases it hears Tuesday dealing with gerrymandering of congressional districts.
In Davis v. Bandemer (1986), six justices agreed that courts can resolve complaints about so-called partisan gerrymandering, the drawing of district lines to favor the party that controls the process. In legal parlance, the justices held that such complaints are “justiciable.” But no five justices were able to agree on what legal principles courts should apply in deciding such cases. That question has been litigated ever since, including this week’s cases, Rucho v. Common Cause and Lamone v. Benisek. The court should put an end to this futile experiment by ruling that such claims are nonjusticiable political questions.
Electoral maneuvering, of which gerrymandering is one example, is as old as democracy itself. One of the more colorful examples is the English rotten boroughs system, which allowed the Crown and its supporters to control a substantial number of seats in the House of Commons until the passage of the Reform Act of 1832. Partisan gerrymandering strikes many observers as unfair, but it’s not clear what constitutional provision it might violate. The Constitution itself doesn’t even anticipate the existence of political parties.
The Constitution does address the question of who has the power to draw district lines. Article I, Section 4 provides that “the times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof.” But the framers understood that what Alexander Hamilton called the “discretionary power over elections” entailed the danger, noted by James Madison, that legislatures might “mould their regulations as to favor the candidates they wish to succeed.” Hamilton went even further, saying unlimited state legislative authority over congressional elections would entail the power to “annihilate” the federal government.
Thus the same section also provides that “Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations.” That this delegation of power to Congress was the response to the possibility of abuse is powerful evidence that the Framers addressed the problem through the structural balance-of-power provisions and that a judicial check on legislatures’ politics is unavailable. Because the Framers agreed that a national election code was unworkable and that a benefit inhered in state legislatures’ ability to address local needs and traditions, they chose not to codify standards in the constitution.
With no standards to apply, judges are left to invent them—or to dismiss challenges as nonjusticiable. That’s where political-question doctrine comes in. Under the Constitution, some problems have no judicial resolution and are instead left to the other, democratically elected branches. Recent Supreme Court precedent establishes two principal hallmarks of a nonjusticiable political question—constitutional text committing a choice to the other branches and the absence of judicially manageable standards. Both apply here.
Another problem is that it is impossible to decide a partisan-gerrymandering case without making an initial determination of what a “fair” redistricting scheme would look like. That’s a question of policy, not law. A principle of partisan fairness is not like the one-person, one-vote rule, which stems from the individual right to representation and identifies equality by a clear, judicially manageable ratio of persons to districts. Nor is a gerrymander like a restraint on speech, which can be cured by allowing all sides to voice their views; or like discrimination, which can be cured by a mandate not to take account of race or another suspect characteristic.
Under the Constitution, the right to political representation belongs to individual human beings, not groups. Even if it is possible to draw maps in which Republicans and Democrats have equal electoral opportunities, a “right” to translate a party’s percentage of votes into seats is not one that all Americans can share. What about independents, members of the Green or Libertarian parties, or even partisans who disagree with platform planks of the two major parties, such as pro-choice Republicans or antitax Democrats?
How to define representational units is a choice that confronts every republican government, and that choice is inherently political. The Constitution itself was made possible by the Great Compromise, which accorded all states, regardless of population, two Senate seats. That affected the electoral opportunity of all citizens and groups. So did the choices to create the Electoral College and to make judges appointed for life rather than elected or term-limited. These were all deliberate choices to define representation according to policy and political compromise. They are not fundamentally different from the choices legislatures confront with every decade’s redistricting.
None of this is to suggest that each legislature’s redistricting choices are good ones; many are not. The questions are nonjusticiable not because they are easy, but because judges cannot distinguish good from bad answers without becoming politicians. If the calls for partisan “fairness” in redistricting represent a meaningful political desire, that desire will percolate through the system and translate into democratic change—like the change from appointment to election of senators. It wouldn’t even take a constitutional amendment for Congress to enact redistricting criteria limiting state legislatures’ political discretion. Proponents of fairness by lawsuit show remarkably little patience for the democratic process they claim to defend.
Messrs. Rivkin and Raile practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. Mr. Rivkin served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office. Mr. Raile has represented clients in redistricting litigation in Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.