Last summer, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called Gill v. Whitford, a partisan-gerrymandering challenge to the state legislative maps drawn by Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature, one of the most important cases of the term. The court heard oral argument in the case in October; two months later, it agreed to take on Benisek v. Lamone, a partisan-gerrymandering challenge to a single federal congressional district drawn by Democratic officials in Maryland. With those two cases on their docket, there were high hopes that the justices would finally weigh in definitively on challenges to the practice of purposely drawing maps to favor one party at the expense of another – either by holding that courts should steer clear of such claims or by laying out standards for courts to use in evaluating them. But the justices did neither. Instead, they sent the Wisconsin case back to the lower court for a new look at whether the challengers in the case have the legal right to bring their challenge at all; they also declined, while saying nothing about the merits, to disturb a ruling by a federal court in Maryland that left the congressional map in place for the 2018 election.It's a meticulously narrow ruling which has the effect of supporting the status quo.
But today’s ruling in the Wisconsin case focused on whether the challengers have a legal right to bring their lawsuit – known as “standing.” The justices unanimously agreed that the challengers had not adequately demonstrated that they do have standing, and the court (although not unanimously) sent the case back to the lower court to allow the challengers to make that showing.
In an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court explained that the Wisconsin challengers’ claims rest on the argument that their votes have been diluted because the Republican-controlled legislature has either “cracked” Democratic voters (dividing them up among different districts so they don’t form a majority in any) or “packed” them (concentrating them in a few districts in which they form an overwhelming majority). But the harm from vote dilution, the court reasoned, stems from how a particular district has been drawn, which in turn causes a voter’s vote “—having been packed or cracked—to carry less weight than it would carry in another, hypothetical district.” The remedy for that harm, the court continued, does not require the state to redraw the entire map, as the challengers have requested; instead, the state would only need to redraw enough of the districts to fix the cracking or packing in a specific district.
I tend to view this with a jaundiced eye.