Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments in Benisek v. Lamone, Maryland Redistricting Case

This morning, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Benisek v. Lamone, a First Amendment retaliation challenge to Maryland's 6th Congressional district lines.  This is the second partisan gerrymandering case the Court has heard this term, after Gill v. Whitford in October.  

The facts and arguments in Benisek are unique from those in Whitford, though both are partisan gerrymandering claims:

For two decades, the predominantly Republican district was represented in Congress by Republican Roscoe Bartlett, but in 2011, redistricting altered the political composition of the 6th district; the following year, Democrat John Delaney beat Bartlett by over 20 percentage points. The plaintiffs in the case live in the 6th district and contend that Democrats in Maryland engaged in partisan gerrymandering – that is, drawing a redistricting map to favor one political party at the expense of another – to retaliate against them for their past support of Republican candidates like Bartlett. And that, they argue, violated their First Amendment rights of speech and association. Maryland officials deny that any gerrymandering occurred. But even if it did, they maintain, courts should stay out of these kinds of First Amendment retaliation claims because there are no manageable standards for them to use to determine when partisan gerrymandering goes too far.

The Court has refrained from ruling on partisan gerrymandering cases in the past, and it is unclear how the Justices will rule on this set of cases:

If spectators had hoped that today’s oral argument might shed some light on how the justices had voted on the Wisconsin case, they were – unless the justices have excellent poker faces – largely disappointed. Instead, it seemed entirely possible that the justices were counting on the oral argument to give them new insight into a solution to the thorny problem of partisan gerrymandering. But before they even got that far, justices of all ideological stripes expressed doubt about whether they should rule on the partisan-gerrymandering question at all when the case came to them as a request for preliminary relief, rather than for a decision on the merits, and their ruling would come too late for any changes to the state’s congressional maps before the upcoming 2018 election. . . . 

When the justices did eventually turn to the question of partisan gerrymandering itself, the concern at the heart of the Wisconsin case resurfaced: How should courts evaluate claims of partisan gerrymandering? As Justice Samuel Alito stressed to Kimberly, the Supreme Court has recognized that redistricting is an inherently partisan process, and that a desire to give the party in power an advantage is not, standing alone, problematic. 

Moreover, there was no obvious consensus among the justices on how courts should determine when politics has played too strong a role in redistricting. . . . 

As RNLA Executive Director Michael Thielen wrote last week, courts are not the proper venue for resolving the political disputes inherent in redistricting.  But since it is unlikely that courts will re-invoke the political question doctrine and no longer decide redistricting cases, everyone on all sides of this issue agrees that the Court needs to provide clear guidance to prevent courts from acting arbitrarily when deciding redistricting cases.