SCOTUS to hear congressional redistricting case on Monday

Next week the Supreme Court will hear a case coming out of Arizona which everyone should be paying attention to, since it will have repercussions which affect virtually everyone in the nation. The gerrymandering issue in this country is well known enough that we don’t need to explain it to you here yet again. Some states have taken action to change the old fashioned method of state legislators fighting over lines to serve their own advantage, and in Arizona they turned the process over to a supposedly independent commission. But the legislators in question weren’t wild about the decision of the people and took the case to court. This week the Supremes will hear those arguments.

The high court will hear a case Monday that could give partisan state legislatures sole authority to draw congressional districts, a task voters in several states have transferred to independent commissions.

The case comes from Arizona, where Republican lawmakers want to take back the power to draw the district lines. If the court sides with them after agreeing to hear their appeal, the ruling would affect similar commissions in California and a handful of other states.

Such a ruling “would consign states to the dysfunctionality of a system where politicians choose their voters rather than voters choosing their politicians,” says a brief filed by three national experts on redistricting.

It would be ironic coming from the Supreme Court, which spends much of its time trying to decipher the laws Congress writes. The justices have complained about the political “gerrymandering” process that leads to ever more non-competitive districts, but they have been unable to find a legal standard to limit how partisan the lines can be.

A group in California (where a similar change was put in place) has already filed an amicus brief against the Arizona case, trying to prevent the Justices from flipping everything back to the way it was. They make impassioned pleas about returning the power to the people and taking the nasty politics out of the process, but that’s not what’s going to decide this issue. The Supreme Court is really going to be hearing a case which comes down to semantics.

Arizona is relying on the Constitutional clause which says that “the times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives” will be determined by the state legislature. They further reference an existing law which states that the lines will be drawn “in a manner provided by the law.” Arizona sees this as a no brainer and wants the power given back to them. Opponents are arguing that the language used in the 1700s was different than today, and the dictionaries of the time call the legislature the source of laws and that includes all branches of government and the voters.

The meaning of words change over time, it’s true. Misdemeanor means something very different than it apparently did in colonial days and there are other examples as well. The Justices will likely take a serious look at that claim, but I’m not sure if it will be enough. No matter which way it goes, I don’t know how much difference it makes if we’re only talking about commissions, rather than other, more creative ways of drawing up district maps. I understand that it’s hard to convince some conservatives that gerrymandering is a problem because it works in the favor of the Republicans in the majority of places. For now. But whether you support a change or not, these private commissions are questionable simply because they are composed of people. Who gets to sit on them and how is that determined? How sure are you that the commissioners aren’t partisans themselves?

Unless we can have a new system which relies on computer generated lines which are truly generic, I don’t know that much is going to change. But if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Arizona we can forget about that ever happening either.