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US midterm elections 2018

Democrats are hit hard as top US court allows ‘discriminatory’ voting boundaries in gerrymandering case

In a 5-4 ruling, court says Texas may continue to use voting districts lower courts had found discriminatory

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2018, 1:53am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2018, 5:46am

In two rulings about gerrymandering on Monday, the US Supreme Court handed a victory to Republicans in Texas by reviving electoral districts that had been thrown out by a lower court for discriminating against black and Hispanic voters, while returning a North Carolina suit to a lower court to determine whether the plaintiffs had standing to sue.

Gerrymandering – the drawing of electoral districts in ways that racially discriminate or favour one political party over another – is typically accomplished by packing voters who tend to favour a particular party into a small number of districts to reduce their statewide voting power while scattering others in districts in numbers too small to be a majority.

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In the Texas case, the court ruled 5-4 that the challengers had not done enough to show that the Republican-led state legislature acted with discriminatory intent when it adopted new electoral maps in 2013 for state legislative and US congressional seats. The administration of US President Donald Trump, a Republican, had backed Texas in the case.

The court did rule, however, that one of the state legislature districts was unlawful.

Last September, the high court put on hold two lower court rulings from earlier in 2017 that had invalidated a series of Texas electoral districts. The justices at that time, as they were in Monday’s ruling, split 5-4, with the conservative justices backing the Texas Republicans and the liberals dissenting.

The maps, adopted in 2013 and challenged by individual voters and civil rights groups representing blacks and Hispanics, were based on court-drawn districts imposed for the 2012 election after prior Republican-draw maps drawn the previous year also were tossed as racially discriminatory. The maps in the case have been in effect throughout the litigation.

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The lower court found that the configuration of two US House of Representatives districts violated the Voting Rights Act, a 1965 federal law that protects minority voters and was enacted to address a history of racial discrimination in voting, especially in Southern states. Texas has 36 US House districts, 25 held by Republicans and 11 by Democrats.

The same court found similar faults with maps for the Texas state House of Representatives.

In his majority opinion, Associate Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the lower court had “committed a fundamental legal error” in the way it had analysed the dispute.

The Texas Legislature was under no legal obligation to show it had “cured” the “unlawful intent” that led to the lower court to throw out the original maps, Alito wrote.

In a fiery dissent, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the ruling “means that, after years of litigation and undeniable proof of intentional discrimination, minority voters in Texas – despite constituting a majority of the population within the state – will continue to be under-represented in the political process”.

In the North Carolina case, the high court set aside a lower court’s ruling that Republican lawmakers drew congressional district boundaries to ensure lopsided electoral victories, sending it back to the federal three-judge panel to reconsider whether the plaintiffs, including a group of Democratic voters, have the necessary legal standing to sue.

The Supreme Court put on hold the lower court’s order that a new map be drawn, leaving the Republican-drawn districts in place for congressional elections in November.

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The three-judge panel in Greensboro, North Carolina, ruled unanimously in January that the Republican-drawn map of North Carolina’s 13 US House districts violated the constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law. Two of the judges found it also ran afoul of the Constitution by discriminating based on political belief and association.

The North Carolina case could make its way back to the Supreme Court within months if the lower court decides that the plaintiffs are still entitled to sue.

Last week, the Supreme Court declined to issue a major ruling in two other gerrymandering cases from Wisconsin and Maryland that could have curbed the ability of state lawmakers to draw electoral districts purely for partisan advantage.

Election reformers in both parties had hoped the court would use the Wisconsin and Maryland cases to crack down on partisan gerrymandering, but it decided both on narrow and procedural grounds.

Chief Justice John Roberts indicated a more comprehensive ruling could come in a future case.