Washington — The Supreme Court will take up a momentous fight over parties manipulating electoral districts to gain partisan advantage in a case that could affect the balance of power between Democrats and Republicans across the United States.
At issue is whether Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin drew legislative districts that favored their party and were so out of whack with the state’s political breakdown that they violated the constitutional rights of Democratic voters.
It will be the high court’s first case in more than a decade on what’s known as partisan gerrymandering. A lower court struck down the districts as unconstitutional last year.
The justices won’t hear the arguments until the fall, but the case has already taken on a distinctly ideological, if not partisan, tone. Just 90 minutes after justices announced Monday that they would hear the case, the five more conservative justices voted to halt a lower court’s order to redraw the state’s legislative districts by November, in time for next year’s elections.
The four more liberal justices, named to the court by Democrats, would have let the new line-drawing proceed even as the court considers the issue.
That divide could be significant. One factor the court weighs in making such decisions is which side seems to have a better chance of winning.
Republicans who control the state legislature assured the court that they could draw new maps in time for the 2018 elections, if the court strikes down the districts. If the state wins, there’ll be no need for new districts.
Democrats hope a favorable decision will help them cut into Republican electoral majorities. Election law experts say the case is the best chance yet for the high court to put limits on what lawmakers may do to gain a partisan advantage in creating political district maps.
Both parties have tried to get the largest partisan edge when they control redistricting. Yet Democrats are more supportive of having courts rein in extreme districting plans, mainly because Republicans control more legislatures and drew districts after the 2010 census that enhanced their advantage in those states and in the House of Representatives.
The Supreme Court has never struck down districts because they are unfairly partisan. Similar lawsuits are pending in Maryland, where Democrats dominate, and North Carolina, where Republicans have a huge edge in the congressional delegation and the state legislature.
Wisconsin Republicans drew the maps in 2011 after they took full control of state government in the 2010 elections. Under those maps in 2012, Republicans captured 61 percent of state assembly seats while winning 48.6 percent of the statewide vote.
Other court rulings
■The Supreme Court on Monday struck down part of a law that bans offensive trademarks, ruling in favor of an Asian-American rock band called the Slants and giving a major boost to the Washington Redskins in their separate legal fight over the team name.
The justices were unanimous in saying that the 71-year-old trademark law barring disparaging terms infringes free speech rights.
■The Supreme Court ruled Monday that Muslim men detained after the Sept. 11 attacks can’t sue top U.S. law enforcement officials.
The justices by a 4-2 vote ended a long-running lawsuit against former Attorney General John Ashcroft, former FBI Director Robert Mueller and other top Bush administration officials. The suit was filed by Muslim men who were detained for months in harsh conditions in a Brooklyn jail after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
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