Independent Redistricting Commissions Survive

In one more big 5-4 decision, SCOTUS today upheld the constitutionality of independent redistricting commissions for purposes of drawing U.S. House districts in a case arising from Arizona, where the decision to cut the state legislature out of the congressional mapping business was made by ballot initiative.

In Arizona Legislature v. Arizona Independent Resdistricting Commission, the Court (with Ruth Bader Ginsburg writing the opinion and Kennedy providing the swing vote) ruled that in this case a state-authorized ballot initiative sufficiently represented the state interest cited in the Constitution even though “the state legislature” was no longer involved.

This decision will probably be perceived as a victory for “progressives” or even for “Democrats,” since a lot of the former think redistricting reform is a really big deal and a lot of the latter feared that the current Republican domination of state legislatures meant a limitation of redistricting powers to those bodies might perpetuate GOP House majorities going forward.

But you can certainly make an argument that the biggest beneficiaries of today’s decision are California Republicans, who have gotten a far better map from this state’s independent redistricting commission than they could ever get from a heavily Democratic legislature.

I’ve never been a big believer in independent commissions as any sort of cure-all for political gerrymandering, even as (over the years) I’ve become less and less convinced that gerrymandering is the main source of political polarization. Aside from the difficulty of setting up a genuinely independent commission (as Arizona itself has illustrated), it should be obvious that how redistricting is conducted is more important than who draws the lines. Redistricting rules (e.g., an emphasis on the maximum number of competitive “compact” districts) can constrain state legislative map-drawers just as effectively as they liberate independent commissions.

It should also be noted that this case (which strictly involved congressional redistricting) did not touch on arguably the most compelling reason for setting up an independent commission: to eliminate the blatant conflict-of-interest created when state legislators draw their own district lines.

One final noteworthy aspect of the Arizona case is that the Chief Justice continued this term’s remarkable use of colloquial and incendiary language by conservative dissenters. Check this out:

Just over a century ago, Arizona became the second State in the Union to ratify the Seventeenth Amendment. That Amendment transferred power to choose United States Senators from “the Legislature” of each State, Art. I, §3, to “the people thereof.” The Amendment resulted from an arduous, decades-long campaign in which reformers across the country worked hard to garner approval from Congress and three-quarters of the States.

What chumps! Didn’t they realize that all they had to do was interpret the constitutional term “the Legislature” to mean “the people”? The Court today performs just such
a magic trick with the Elections Clause.

#SCOTUSSnark may soon be trending on Twitter.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.