On December 8th, the Supreme Court heard back to back arguments in cases involving the idea that everyone’s vote should bear roughly equal weight—the so-called “one person, one vote” principle that was developed in a series of cases in the 1960s. Evenwel v Abbott, a challenge to the calculus Texas uses to work out population, makes an appearance in this week’s paper. Harris v Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, which poses a similarly fraught question about district map-drawing, was argued one hour prior to Evenwel. Harris re-ignites a debate most court watchers thought was long settled: whether and to what extent America’s constitution permits partisan considerations to factor into the drawing of electoral maps. Until last week, the justices looked askance only at racial gerrymandering. Now at least a few Supremes seem to be entertaining the idea that there may be sharp limits on partisan political considerations as well, at least where voter equality is at stake.
The story of Harris begins with a case with a “Kramer-vs-Kramer”-eque moniker: Arizona State Legislature v Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. In June, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the federal constitution permits Arizona voters to take redistricting out of the hands of its legislature and, in the hopes of reducing rank partisanship, assign the task to an independent commission. A day later, the Court agreed to hear whether the commission was following through on its promise. The plaintiffs, conservative Arizonans who live in districts they say are unfairly overstuffed, contend that in practice the commission‘s work has been anything but “independent”. “By overpopulating Republican districts,” their brief reads, “the commission unfairly diluted the vote of thousands of Arizona citizens.”
In her majority opinion in last term’s Arizona case, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that commissions “have not eliminated the inevitable partisan suspicions associated with political line-drawing”. But, she wrote, “they have succeeded to a great degree” in “limiting the conflict of interest implicit in legislative control over redistricting”. For Justice Antonin Scalia, the cases ought to have reached the Court in reverse order. The sordid truth about the “supposedly divine commission”, he sneered to Paul Smith, the commission’s lawyer, would have been useful knowledge a year ago. “I wish this case had come up before the case we had last term”, Justice Scalia said.