One Win & One Loss for American Democracy: Two Court Cases Impacting the Redrawing of Congressional Districts

By: Kai Legette-Gideon

On June 27, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled on two cases with implications that could change the discourse of American politics for the next ten years, The Department of Commerce v. New York and Rucho v. Common Cause.

The case Rucho v. Common Cause ruled whether the Supreme Court has the authority to intervene in instances of partisan gerrymandering.  Partisan gerrymandering is an undemocratic practice to manipulate election results in favor of one party. It is an attack on American democracy by intentionally drawing congressional districts in a way to dilute certain votes based on party, while enhancing the power of other voters.  

In the case, the SCOTUS voted 5-4, ruling that partisan gerrymandering is not unconstitutional. According to Chief Justice Roberts opinion, he claimed partisan gerrymandering to be an unjust problem, however, mentioned it is not a matter for the SCOTUS, but state legislatures. 

 Although, Chief Roberts argued partisan gerrymandering was not a matter for the courts, more liberal judges such as Justice Elena Kagan, argued the Supreme Court did have the authority to resolve partisan gerrymandering. She even mentioned previous cases resolved by the Supreme Court in regards to malapportioned districts and racial district gerrymandering.

 This ruling comes a year before the 2020 census, with ramifications that will affect the Country until the next census in 2030.  If this problem is not taken up by state legislators it will mostly favor the Republican Party, being that they control the majority of state legislatures, they will have the power in redrawing congressional lines until the 2030 census.

In the next case, The Department of Commerce vs. New York, the SCOTUS voted 5-4, ruling that the census question shall not be added to the 2020 census for right now. Chief Justice Roberts argued, the reasoning provided by the Department of Commerce had reasons for concern, stating “the evidence tells a story that does not match the explanation (Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross) gave for his decision”. The ruling did not permanently reject the adding of the citizenship question to the 2020 census. Instead, it gave the administration another opportunity to provide a sufficient reason for attempting to add the question. 

This question was not originally on the census because it provided a count of people within the United States, not citizens. The Department of Commerce stated it was adding the question upon the request of the Department of Justice (DOJ). Reasoning given by the DOJ was that it wanted better citizenship data to enforce the Voting Rights Act to guarantee minority citizens don't have their votes diluted. 

 Controversy within the matter stems from concerns of misrepresentation of people in congressional districts during the redrawing of congressional seats. Opponents of the citizenship question argue it would deter non-citizens, especially, Latinos, from responding to the census. The census question would also base congressional districts on the number of citizens, not residents. 

 After the SCOTUS granted the Trump administration a chance to offer better reasoning to add a citizenship question to Federal court judges, the Administration requested a change of legal team. However, Federal judges denied this request. Shortly after, the administration mentioned pursuing a different way to add the question, although the administration has ceased the pursuit of the question, since that statement. 

In hopes that the Trump administration will not attempt to add the citizenship question to the census again, this is a win for American democracy. Those who are undocumented immigrants will not be as discouraged to fill out the 2020 census, enhancing the possibility for adequate federal spending in congressional districts with concentrated undocumented immigrants, as well as having a proper count impacting the redrawing of congressional lines. However, the SCOTUS unwillingness to intervene in partisan gerrymandering is a loss for American democracy.

Kayla Pasacreta