This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Monday, July 1, 2019

Supreme Court Punts Yet Again on Gerrymandering

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on two cases of particular interest to demographers: (1) forbidding for the time being the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 census (as I have already blogged about); and (2) the use of demographic data to draw congressional district boundaries that benefit one political party at the expense of the other. The majority opinion of the Supreme Court on the latter issue was that justices were really not in a position to do much about this.  They argued that this was an issue to be worked out with appropriate legislation, rather than being adjudicated by the courts. Here's how the Washington Post summarized their thinking:
The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that federal judges have no power to stop politicians from drawing electoral districts to preserve or expand their party’s power, a landmark ruling that dissenters said will empower an explosion of extreme partisan gerrymandering. 
The 5-to-4 decision was written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and joined by the court’s other conservatives. It capped decades of debate about whether federal courts have a role in policing partisan efforts to draw electoral districts in the same way the judiciary protects against racial discrimination. 
“We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” Roberts wrote. “Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions.”
The dissenting opinion was read in the court by Justice Elena Kagan who noted that “The gerrymanders here — and others like them — violated the constitutional rights of many hundreds of thousands of American citizens,” she said.

It was about this time last year when the Supreme Court last punted on the gerrymandering issue in cases brought against partisan boundaries drawn in Texas and North Carolina, as I blogged about at the time. This year's decision revisited North Carolina and also included Maryland.

Given the current composition of the Supreme Court, it seems unlikely that we are going to get a different result from them any time soon. It also strikes me as unlikely that Congress will do anything about this any time soon. That suggests that the only way to ensure the drawing of fair congressional district boundaries is for more states to have an independent districting commission, as we have here in California, rather than having the legislature make those decisions (which is typical and which, of course, favors the political party with the majority of votes).