The Supreme Court just dealt Republicans a fatal blow in landmark gerrymandering decision

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In a ruling that boosts Democratic chances of taking back a majority of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in November – and sets back obstinate Republicans trying to game the system to maintain their ill-gotten control of an important state’s electorate – the U.S. Supreme Court today denied a stay in a case requiring Pennsylvania to redraw its congressional districts before the coming midterm elections. 

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Although historically Pennsylvania has been strongly Democratic, since the Republicans dramatically redrew the district lines in 2011 following the census, the Republicans now control 13 of 18 seats in the state legislature.

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“Election law experts say that a nonpartisan map could move as many as three of those seats to Democrats and increase that party’s chances of regaining control of the House in the midterm elections this fall,” reports the New York  Times. 

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court had ruled 5 to 2 (along party lines) that the electoral “map” used to create a crazy quilt of districts so that it unfairly favored Republicans had to be redrawn before the upcoming primary and midterm elections.

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The state court ordered the legislature in Harrisburg to redraw fair maps and to provide documents related to the process of determining the district lines.

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The state court said if the legislature did not obey the order, the court would redraw the district lines more fairly, or have it done by an independent commission.

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The state court said in its ruling that the current lines “clearly, plainly and palpably” violated the state Constitution.

The Republicans leader of the state Senate, Joe Scarnati, defied the state court order, claiming only a federal court would have jurisdiction over the redistricting process.

The League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania’s attornies, in the case that went to the state Supreme Court, argued, “There is no partisan gerrymandering exception to federalism.”

Republicans filed an appeal to the Supreme Court so that they would not have to obey the state court.

Scarnati will no longer have an excuse to flaunt the law by refusing to provide the requested election districting documents. 

The response to the Republican emergency appeal was written by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who acted without referring the case to the full court. He denied the stay without going into detail about his decision.

This is one of a large number of cases involving gerrymandering – the redrawing of electoral districts to favor one party and subvert the will of the majority. 

Most other cases, such as those involving Wisconsin, Maryland and North Carolina, were referred to the Supreme Court from other federal courts.

In Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court has typically ruled that a state court, under the mandate of state law, must be allowed to make a ruling that cannot be overturned by federal law.

The rare exception to that was in 2000 when the Supreme Court acted to swing the presidential election to George W. Bush over Al Gore by overruling Florida law.

The redrawing of state electoral district maps after the 2010 census in so many states to favor Republicans in almost every case was the result of hundreds of millions spent by conservatives like the Koch brothers to take control of state legislatures in the first decade of the 21st century.

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Now that their plot has been discovered and is being challenged, the Democrats have their own task force addressing the inequity and working to make sure upcoming elections are fair, where possible. 

The Republicans have also created their own new task force to keep the momentum going that has given them control majority of legislatures and state houses, as well as both Houses of Congress and the White House.

So the battle is on in the courts and soon at the polls, but at least this time it appears that the Democrats are just as engaged as the Republicans in the effort to control the states, and then when the next census comes, to be in control of rewriting the electoral district maps.

This is a fight that is incredibly important even if it is not sexy enough to be in the news all the time or at the top of most voters minds. 

In a nation where democracy is threatened not only by an influx of corporate money and the power of a few dozen super-wealthy individuals like the Koch brothers in the wake of Citizens United but also by the voter apathy that results in low turnouts at the polls on election days, having district lines at least be fair is crucial to keeping our nation on the side of all Americans and not just those who make campaign contributions.

Benjamin Locke

Benjamin Locke is a retired college professor with an undergraduate degree in Industrial Labor and Relations from Cornell University and an MBA from the European School of Management.

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