Editorial: Court spares Michigan, and gets the law right

The Detroit News
Ashley Oleson, with the League of Women Voters of Maryland, carries signs of Maryland's districts, as nonpartisan groups against gerrymandering protest in front of the Supreme Court, Wednesday, March 28, 2018, in Washington.

The U.S. Supreme Court spared Michigan a year of political chaos in ruling that federal courts can’t intervene to undo partisan gerrymandering. The justices also got the decision right.

In a 5-4 ruling, with the conservative justices holding together to form the majority, the court ruled that the drawing of political districts is a job for politicians, and not judges.

The case combined challenges to political maps in North Carolina -- drawn by Republicans -- and Maryland -- drawn by Democrats.

Without ruling on the merits of the cases, the High Court declared the courts powerless to intervene in what it said is a role set aside by the Constitution for lawmakers.

“We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.

The ruling has a direct impact on Michigan. Earlier this year, a panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of appeals decided that Republicans had drawn maps in 2012 that gave themselves an unwarranted advantage. As a remedy, it ordered 14 state Senate districts redrawn and a special election be held in 2020.

The evidence presented in Michigan was conclusive. But the remedy imposed by the court was both unnecessary and onerous.

It would have required senators who had won four-year terms in 2018 to run again in 2020 in districts with new boundary lines. Some of those senators might not have been able to run at all, since Michigan’s term limits law restricts senators to two terms. No one seems certain whether the two years in office would constitute a full term.

Michigan voters had already resolved the gerrymandering issue by approving a 2018 ballot measure that removes redistricting from the Legislature and turns it over to an appointed commission following the 2020 Census.

Beyond the relief it provides Michigan, the ruling also is the right legal take.

As Roberts wrote, the Constitution recognizes that politics would play a role in drawing election districts when it assigned that role to Legislatures.

Voters are not powerless in the process. They can do what they’ve done in Michigan and elsewhere and seek for themselves a less partisan process for crafting the maps.

Gerrymandering also has not guaranteed a permanent advantage. In Michigan, Republicans won nine of 14 seats in 2012, despite gaining far fewer votes statewide than Democrats.

By 2018, the delegation was split 7-7, more accurately reflecting the state’s partisan divide.

Turning over the job of drawing districts to judges, as Roberts wrote, is no guarantee of better results, since “there are no standards discernible in the Constitution for making such judgments.”

Liberals are declaring this ruling a blow to democracy. That’s hyperbole. Roberts correctly stated that gerrymandering has been part of the nation’s political fabric since the beginning, and democracy has endured. 

Technology has made the science of tilting districts more precise, but voters have remedies, most notably the ballot box.

This ruling hews to a vital principle: No matter how righteous the cause, the courts can’t claim powers the Constitution doesn’t assign them.