Thomas Wolf, Counsel, Democracy Program, Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law
*This post originally appeared on the Brennan Center for Justice website.
Partisan gerrymandering has long befuddled the courts. Although judges have recognized the harm of the practice, they have been unable to agree on a standard for policing it. But for the second time in a year, a partisan-gerrymandering challenge has cleared a critical hurdle.
Earlier this week, voters challenging the drawing of Maryland’s 2011 congressional map got the green light to proceed with their First Amendment claim when a panel of three federal judges voted 2-1 to deny a motion to dismiss from Maryland’s attorney general. The voters — plaintiffs in the long-running case Shapiro v. McManus — will now be able to conduct discovery in preparation for a trial. The victory gives new momentum to a case that, along with a partisan-gerrymandering challenge pending in Wisconsin, could soon be headed for the U.S. Supreme Court, where the Justices will have their first opportunity in more than a decade to decide whether partisan gerrymandering violates the Constitution.
The panel’s opinion focuses on the legal sufficiency of the plaintiffs’ complaint, which challenges the 2011 congressional redistricting plan enacted by the Maryland General Assembly. The plaintiffs alleged the legislature deliberately used information about voters’ partisan affiliations and voting histories to flip Maryland’s Sixth District from an otherwise reliably Republican stronghold into a safe Democratic seat, all in a successful attempt to punish Republican voters for casting ballots for their party’s candidates. On those facts, the panel ruled, the plaintiffs stated a claim that could go to trial, endorsing the plaintiffs’ theory that these kinds of districting machinations violate the First Amendment.
The First Amendment problem with Maryland’s redistricting, the panel explained, was that it diluted the plaintiffs’ votes — that is, made their votes less powerful than other voters’ — by placing them in districts where they were outnumbered and repeatedly outvoted by Democrats, and did so simply because the plaintiffs had voted Republican in the past. That dilution was an example — albeit a novel one — of the kind of retaliation for political speech and association that the First Amendment bars.