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. Read more »