To the surprise of Supreme Court observers and election lawyers, on Friday the Supreme Court agreed to hear a second political gerrymandering case this term, this time out of Maryland:
In October, the justices heard oral argument in a challenge to the redistricting plan passed by Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature in 2011 [Gill v. Whitford]. Today they agreed to weigh in on Benisek v. Lamone, a challenge to another redistricting plan enacted in 2011, in which the plaintiffs allege that Democratic election officials in Maryland gerrymandered the state’s 6th congressional district in retaliation for the plaintiffs’ support for Republican candidates – specifically, Roscoe Bartlett, who represented them in Congress for two decades.
Most Court observers assumed that the justices would not hear Benisek, or any other political gerrymandering cases, until they had decided the currently pending case, Gill v. Whitford. While the plaintiffs in Whitford challenged the map for the entire state, the Benisek plaintiffs are challenging just one district:
The plaintiffs told the justices that “the mapdrawers reshuffled fully half of the district’s 720,000 residents—far more than necessary to correct the mere 10,000-person imbalance in the district’s population following the 2010 census.” As a result, they explained, “registered Republicans’ share of the electorate fell from 47% to 33%,” and Bartlett lost his seat to a Democrat, John Delaney.
The claim is slightly different in Benisek as well, as it is based in the First Amendment. A dispute over what must be proven under such a claim and whether the Court has the authority to hear the case are before the Court:
The issues before the court center on what plaintiffs in a First Amendment retaliation challenge to partisan gerrymandering must show for their case to go forward. According to the plaintiffs in this case, the district court would have required them to show that “each and every outcome is (and will continue to be) singularly attributable to gerrymandering.” But all they should have to show, the plaintiffs maintain, is that they have suffered some injury.
The decision to grant cert in this case, in addition to Whitford, may indicate that the justices will issue a broad, joint opinion laying out the rules for political gerrymandering claims. Or, the Court may decide the cases separately and on very narrow grounds (perhaps on a jurisdictional issue, instead of reaching the claims on the merits). While this Supreme Court term previously had the potential to change the legal landscape for redistricting, that is even more true now that another partisan gerrymandering case is before the Court. Oral argument in Benisek has not yet been scheduled.