U.S. Supreme Court

Courts & Law

By Robert Barnes
April 4, 2016 at 8:47 PM
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The Supreme Court unanimously ruled Monday that states may satisfy “one person, one vote” rules by drawing election districts based on the total population of a place, a defeat for conservative interests that wanted the districts based only on the number of people eligible to vote.

The case, Evenwel v. Abbott, was considered one of the most important on voting rights this term, and a decision the other way would have shifted political power away from urban areas, where Democrats usually dominate, and toward more Republican-friendly rural areas.

The court’s ruling left open the possibility that other methods of reapportionment might be constitutional. But the decision was clear that using anything other than total population would face certain Supreme Court review.

The leader of the effort to use voting-eligible population as the standard said it was unlikely that any jurisdiction would test such a system until after the 2020 census.

The Supreme Court has never explained what metric should be used to satisfy the “one person, one vote” standard that the court advanced in the 1960s, and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. chose Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to write the majority decision.

“What constitutional history and our prior decisions strongly suggest, settled practice confirms,” Ginsburg wrote. “Adopting voter-eligible apportionment as constitutional command would upset a well-functioning approach to districting that all 50 States and countless local jurisdictions have followed for decades, even centuries.”

She added, “As the Framers of the Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment comprehended, representatives serve all residents, not just those eligible or registered to vote.”

She was joined by Roberts and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. agreed with the outcome but filed separate concurrences.

[Supreme Court considers challenge to how states reapportion]

Currently, all states, with some minor variations, use total population for redistricting, and that standard is used to allocate congressional districts to the states after each census.

The general population contains millions of people who aren’t eligible to vote: children, legal and illegal immigrants, prisoners, and those who are disenfranchised. Except for prisoners, they are largely concentrated in urban areas.

Latino groups were especially cheered by the court’s ruling.

Rep. Linda T. Sánchez ­(D-Calif.), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said the challenge “was a conservative effort to undermine the growing influence of the Latino community. Today’s unanimous decision is a victory and reaffirms the fundamental principle that in the United States each person counts.”

The court’s decision was supported by all eight justices because it chose a middle ground between several competing positions. The challengers wanted only the ­voting-eligible population to be counted for redistricting. The Obama administration said that only total population would be constitutional. The state of Texas, whose state Senate districts were challenged, wanted the option to use either.

But the court stopped after deciding that the total population passed muster, declining to rule on whether any other method of drawing districts could be used. Perhaps because the court has shown itself equally divided in other cases after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, Ginsburg wrote that anything more could wait.

The group that brought the challenge, the Project on Fair Representation, expressed disappointment that the justices “were unwilling to reestablish the original principle of one-person, one vote for the citizens of Texas and elsewhere.” The group’s plaintiffs had said that the unequal numbers of eligible voters in the Senate districts diluted the impact of their votes.

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