On Tuesday, Supreme Court heard what could very well become the most significant case of its entire term—one with the potential to literally reshape American politics for years to come.
The case, Gill v. Whitford, stems from an alleged 2011 effort by Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature to gerrymander state assembly voting districts based on political party affiliation, leading to disproportionately lopsided GOP gains in the state legislature. Lower courts agreed with plaintiffs who claimed Republicans were gaming the political system in their favor, setting the stage for Tuesday’s presentation to the Supreme Court—or, more specifically, Justice Anthony Kennedy, widely seen as the crucial swing vote in this case.
Kennedy has been a longtime critic of extreme gerrymandering. On Tuesday, he gave little overt indication about whether he would side with his more liberal colleagues in this case. He did, however, only question the attorney defending Wisconsin, and not the lawyers for the plaintiffs accusing the state of their partisan maneuvers—a sign, some court observers believe, that he may be preparing to join liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan.
The implications of a Supreme Court decision barring hyper-partisan gerrymandering could be deep and far reaching. The practice has helped ensure disproportionate conservative victories in states like North Carolina and Texas. Should it be ruled unconstitutional, Democrats will likely have a more even playing field across the country. And since it is state legislators who draw national congressional districts, an end to extreme gerrymandering could profoundly effect the makeup of the House of Representatives.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Court’s hard right justices pushed back on the case.
“Gerrymandering is distasteful,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said. “but if we are going to impose a standard on the courts, it has to be something that’s manageable.”
Chief Justice John Roberts also questioned whether the case was appropriate for the Supreme Court, worrying that its reputation and standing could be damaged if it was seen as ruling in favor or against a particular political party.
“That is going to cause very serious harm to the status and integrity of the decisions of this court in the eyes of the country,” he said during his opening remarks before the oral arguments were heard.
For liberal stalwart Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, however, the implications—and risks—of the gerrymandering case were clear.
“What’s really behind all of this?” Ginsburg asked at one point. “The precious right to vote.”