Last week, the Supreme Court of the United States released a handful of landmark decisions. Most notably, the high court upheld the tax credit subsidies component of the Affordable Care Act, declined to hike the standard by which a prospective tenant can bring a Fair Housing Act case, and in arguably the most significant civil rights case in at least a generation, made marriage equality law nationwide.
On June 29, however, the court ruled on a case that should not be overlooked. In 2000, the voters of Arizona approved Proposition 106, which established an independent commission to redraw congressional districts, as well as those for the state legislature. The Republican-controlled Arizona state legislature took issue with being excised from the process of redrawing districts, and filed suit against said commission. Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission made it to the Supreme Court, and in a decision penned by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Court held against the state legislature and in favor of keeping the process in the hands of the commission.
The Arizona legislature contended that the establishment of a redistricting commission violated Article I, Section IV of the U.S. Constitution, also known as the Elections Clause, which provides that the “Time, Places and Manner of holding Elections for… Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof.” In her opinion written for the majority, Justice Ginsburg noted that contemporary dictionaries from the late eighteenth century, when the Constitution was composed, defined “legislature” as “the power that makes laws.” As Arizona’s state constitution grants state voters the power to make laws and enact constitutional amendments through referendum, Justice Ginsburg concluded that the independent commission does not, in fact, run counter to the Elections Clause.
This is a monumental decision. Gerrymandering, a state legislature’s practice of redrawing legislative districts decennially to benefit the political party in charge and attempt to perpetuate their majority, is a pervasive problem with real consequences for the country. In Florida, for example, a roughly evenly divided “purple” state that voted twice for President Barack Obama, the state legislature is heavily Republican on account of districts that have been drawn in the GOP’s favor. Presently, the 120-seat state House has 80 Republicans, 39 Democrats, and one vacancy, while the 40-seat state Senate comprises 25 Republicans, 14 Democrats, and one vacancy. The 27-member Florida delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives includes seventeen Republicans and ten Democrats.
To be clear, both major parties have been guilty of gerrymandering. But with the majority of state legislatures currently under Republican control, the GOP has reaped the benefits of this practice of late. In 2012, the Republican Party retained their majority in the U.S. House, even as President Barack Obama won reelection by a healthy margin. In the aggregate, Republican candidates for the House received nearly 500,000 fewer votes than did their Democratic counterparts. Thanks to their gerrymandering, however, the GOP maintained control of the lower chamber.
Neither party should be permitted to draw districts; the temptations of power, political contributions, and human nature have proven time and again to be too much for state legislators to resist. Arizona, and other states such as California that also have independent redistricting commissions, have the right idea; districts must be drawn by individuals with no vested interest or incentive in the process. Only then will the composition of legislative bodies reflect the true will of the people they purport to represent.
Good on Justice Ginsburg and the majority in this case for ruling for the people.