How egregiously can a majority party gerrymander a political map before it violates the Constitution? The Supreme Court has tried to answer that question for 30 years. On Tuesday, it will try again, hearing arguments in a case involving the Wisconsin State Assembly that could remake an American political landscape rived by polarization and increasingly fenced off for partisan advantage. Republicans declared a strategy in 2008 to capture control of state legislatures so that they could redraw congressional districts to their advantage after the 2010 census. Political scientists said that was one reason the Democratic presence in the House of Representatives had fallen to 75-year lows. After November’s election, Democrats took steps to reclaim legislatures before the 2020 census set off a new round of map drawing. In essence, the court is being asked to decide whether such a partisan divide should continue unabated or be reined in. The immediate stakes are enormous: A decisive ruling striking down the Wisconsin Assembly map could invalidate redistricting maps in up to 20 other states, said Barry C. Burden, the director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Other analysts said that at least a dozen House districts would be open to court challenges if the court invalidated Wisconsin’s map. Some place the number of severely gerrymandered House districts as high as 20.
The historic nature of the question is underscored by a swarm of briefs — 54, totaling perhaps a thousand pages — filed by those with an interest in the outcome.
“I think it’s huge,” said Edward B. Foley, the director of the online Election Law project at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University. Without guidance from the court, he said, gerrymandering “is like the German autobahn — do whatever you want, as much as you want. A red light from the court, or even a strong yellow light, puts the brakes on this.”