WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that partisan gerrymandering of congressional and legislative districts is none of its business, a decision that leaves state officials free from federal court challenges to their plans to shape districts to blatantly help their parties.
The court's conservative majority, including the two justices appointed by President Donald Trump, prevailed in a 5-4 ruling that dealt a huge blow to efforts to combat the redrawing of district lines to benefit a particular party.
The decision, on the last day before the justices' long summer break, has no effect on racial gerrymandering challenges. Courts have barred redistricting aimed at reducing the political representation of racial minorities for a half-century.
But the outcome brings an immediate halt to lawsuits that sought to rein in the most partisan districting plans that can result when one party controls a state's legislature and governor's office.
In the short term, Republicans are the prime beneficiaries of the ruling. They made dramatic political gains in the 2010 election just before the last round of redistricting, so they have controlled the process in many states. Democratic voters had persuaded lower courts to strike down districting plans in Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin. The one Republican suit came in Maryland, against a single congressional district. Redistricting will next take place in 2021, once 2020 census results are available.
In another politically charged case decided Thursday, the court blocked for now the Trump administration's effort to add a citizenship question to the next census. It's unclear whether the Trump administration has time to address the court's concerns. Printing of census forms is supposed to begin next week.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion in both cases, siding with the liberals on the census and the conservatives on redistricting. Although the chief justice often seeks broader coalitions for relatively narrow decisions, he ended up writing a sweeping redistricting opinion that drew an impassioned dissent from the liberal justices.
Voters and elected officials should be the arbiters of what is a political dispute, Roberts said in his opinion for the court. Federal courts are the wrong place to settle these disputes, he said.