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Fight over electoral district boundaries heads to top U.S. court

Fight over electoral district boundaries heads to top U.S. court
From Reuters - September 17, 2017

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It is a political practice nearly as old as the United States - manipulating the boundaries of legislative districts to help one party tighten its grip on power in a move called partisan gerrymandering - and one the Supreme Court has never curbed.

That could soon change, with the nine justices making the legal fight over Republican-drawn electoral maps in Wisconsin one of the first cases they hear during their 2017-2018 term that begins next month. Their ruling in the case could influence American politics for decades.

Wisconsin officials point to the difficulty of having courts craft a workable standard for when partisan gerrymandering violates constitutional protections. Opponents of the practice said limits are urgently needed, noting that sophisticated technological tools now enable a dominant party to devise with new precision state electoral maps that marginalize large swathes of voters in legislative elections.

There is a sense that something has gone amiss with American democracy, that there is this effort to rig the rules of the game, said Michael Li, an expert in redistricting at New York University School of Laws Brennan Center for Justice. Gerrymandering used to be a dark art, and now its a dark science.

The justices will hear arguments on Oct. 3 in Wisconsins appeal of a lower court ruling that found that the electoral map drawn by state Republicans ran afoul of the U.S. Constitution.

The map, drawn after the 2010 U.S. census, enabled them to win a sizable majority of Wisconsin legislative seats despite losing the popular vote statewide to the Democrats. The partys majority has widened since.

The justices must decide whether courts should have a say in such matters. The Supreme Court for decades has been willing to invalidate state electoral maps on the grounds of racial discrimination but never those drawn simply to give one party an advantage.

The justices have never settled on a standard by which partisan gerrymandering claims can be measured. In a 2004 case, Justice Anthony Kennedy left the door open for a workable standard to eventually be found.

Kennedy, a conservative who sometimes sides with the liberal justices on a court with a 5-4 conservative majority, could cast the deciding vote in the Wisconsin case.

A federal three-judge panel ruled 2-1 last November that Wisconsins redistricting plan violated the U.S. Constitutions 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law and First Amendment right to freedom of expression and association.

Over the decades, both Republicans and Democrats have been accused of gerrymandering. Since 2010, Republicans control of redistricting has coincided with major seat advantages for them in state legislatures, the Brennan Center said.

It is not just Republicans who are accused of abuses. Republican voters sued over districts drawn by Democratic lawmakers in Maryland and have appealed to the Supreme Court.

State and federal legislative district boundaries are reconfigured after the U.S. government conducts a census every decade so that each one contains about same number of people, typically by the party that controls the state legislature.

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