The Supreme Court rejects about 99% of the 7,000 to 8,000 petitions that reach it each year. But when it comes to cases involving reapportionment—challenges to how states draw lines for congressional or state legislative elections—the justices can’t be quite so choosy. Congress has chipped away at the cases subject to mandatory review by the Supreme Court, but it has kept it for redistricting cases where an election looms and time is of the essence. If skewed electoral maps may need to be redrawn, a special three-judge federal court is convened to hear the case; an appeal goes right to the Supreme Court, bypassing America’s 13 circuit courts.
This quirk of Supreme Court procedure explains why the justices have now agreed to hear four gerrymandering cases this term, including two added on January 12th. These recurring matters may be their least-favourite to resolve. In 2016, Justice Stephen Breyer told lawyers in a racial-gerrymandering dispute that he had hoped his majority opinion in a similar 2015 case “would end these cases in this court”. But Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v Alabama “certainly doesn’t seem to have” done so, Justice Breyer rued then. And, apparently, 2017 rulings in Bethune-Hill v Virginia State Board of Elections and Cooper v Harris haven’t done so either.
The latest disputes over electoral lines come from Texas and are, in election-law expert Rick Hasen’s words, “crazy with details”. Both cases ask whether race improperly influenced the state legislature’s map-making and both—to make things more confusing—are styled Abbott v Perez. (Greg Abbott is the governor of Texas; Shannon Perez is an Hispanic voter who lives in Bexar County.) But the two cases address two different maps—one for congressional districts, another for state legislative districts—and involve slightly different claims of racial unfairness.