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What Is Gerrymandering? Supreme Court Decision Favors Democrats

June 17, 2019, 6:23 PM UTC
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday has ruled against the Virginia House of Delegates in a racial gerrymandering case, tossing out a case that gives the state’s Democrats a long-sought-after victory.
Gerrymandering occurs when voting districts are redrawn to benefit one party over another in elections, forcing the other side to “waste” votes. For example, someone drawing district lines might bunch opposition party voters together in one district in order to concentrate their votes so that they influence only a few seats.

The high court said in a 22-page opinion the G.O.P.-controlled house didn’t have a legal right to challenge a previous lower court opinion that struck down several district maps they had drawn as an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. As a result of the ruling, court-ordered maps favoring Democrats will remain in use.

Or, it could mean grouping those opposition voters into districts where the other party gains a hold on power, making it very difficult for the opposing party to win elections.

The Supreme Court took the case after Virginia’s House of Delegates filed an appeal after the state’s attorney general, a Democrat, decided not to appeal the ruling striking down the voting maps.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the opinion for a 5-4 decision in the case, Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill, getting both liberal and conservative backing from Justices Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Neil Gorsuch.
With the court dismissing the challenge on standing grounds, the justices didn’t rule if the maps constitute an unconstitutional racial gerrymander.
“The House observes that Virginia gives redistricting authority to the ‘General Assembly.’ True enough,” Ginsburg wrote. “(But) One House of its bicameral legislature cannot alone continue the litigation against the will of its partners in the legislative process.
“If the State had designated the House to represent its interests, and if the House had in fact carried out that mission, we would agree that the House could stand in for the State. Neither precondition, however, is met here,” Ginsburg continued.
In opposition, Justice Samuel Alito Jr. wrote that the Virginia House of Delegates suffered an injury and had every right to pursue a lawsuit, even using a sports analogy in his defense.
“It is precisely because of the connections between the way districts are drawn, the composition of a legislature and the things that a legislature does that so much effort is invested in drawing, contesting and defending districting plans,” Alito Jr. wrote. “Does a string quartet have an interest in the identity of its cellist?” he asked. “Does a basketball team have an interest in the identity of its point guard?”
Alito Jr. was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., and Justices Samuel Breyer and Brett Kavanaugh in dissent.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said in a statement that Monday’s Supreme Court ruling is a win for democracy.
“It’s unfortunate that House Republicans wasted millions of taxpayer dollars and months of litigation in a futile effort to protect racially gerrymandered districts, but the good news is that this fall’s elections will take place in constitutionally drawn districts,” Herring said.
Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general under former president Barack Obama, said in a tweet Monday that the ruling is significant for those Virginians forced since 2011 to vote in racially gerrymandered districts that unjustly undermined the privilege to vote.
“Today’s ruling from the Supreme Court is an important victory for African Americans in Virginia who have been forced to vote in racially gerrymandered districts that kept rightful power away from them. Shameful. Fair elections will finally happen this fall for ALL Virginians,” Holder said.

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