ACLU Urges Supreme Court to Condemn Biased Redistricting Schemes

December 10, 2003 12:00 am

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Outcome of Case Could Have Wide Impact on Race and Politics in American Elections


WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments today in Vieth v. Jubelirer, a battle over partisan redistricting whose outcome could have as great an impact on the American political system as any decision since the “one man, one vote” rule of four decades ago, the American Civil Liberties Union said.

The ACLU is urging the Court to hold, at a minimum, that the Constitution does not permit a redistricting scheme designed to ensure that a minority of voters controls a majority of seats.

“At this point, elections are less a reflection of popular opinion than of legislative craftsmanship,” said ACLU Legal Director Steven R. Shapiro. “Any redistricting scheme that is designed to ensure that a minority of voters elect a majority of representatives is unconstitutional. Although partisan gerrymandering is rife, up to now the courts have done virtually nothing to keep it under control.”

In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution imposes some restraints on the ability of elected state legislators to use the congressional redistricting process for partisan political advantage. But the standard articulated by the Court was so vague and unworkable that it has proved virtually meaningless, Shapiro said.

Politicians from both parties have taken advantage of sophisticated computer software to “gerrymander” districts along political lines with little fear of judicial intervention. As a result, fewer than 10 percent of congressional elections in any given year are now considered competitive, according to the ACLU, which filed its brief together with the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School.

Under the present system, congressional and state legislative districts are redrawn every 10 years to comply with the information collected in every census, so that when the population shifts, voting districts are adjusted accordingly.

In the case in question, following the 2000 census, Republican legislators in Pennsylvania created a meandering district that winds from county to county through the Philadelphia suburbs and is 300 yards wide in places. While registered voters in Pennsylvania divide almost evenly between the two parties, the Democrats lost two Congressional seats following this redistricting, giving the Republicans a majority by two seats.

“When government administers elections, we expect it behave neutrally and not to favor one political party over another,” said Arthur Eisenberg, Legal Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union and an author of the ACLU brief. “That neutrality principal is being violated by political gerrymandering. It petrifies the political process, dilutes the electoral compact and skews the outcomes of elections.”

Vieth v. Jubelirer was filed by Shapiro of the ACLU, Eisenberg of the NYCLU, and Laughlin McDonald and Neil Bradley of the ACLU Foundation, along with Burton Neuborne, Deborah Goldberg, J.J. Gass, and Adam H. Morse of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, and Ronald A. Klain and Charles E. Borden of O’Melveny & Meyers LLP.

The brief is online at /cpredirect/18292

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