Today two Supreme Court decisions were announced, both of which with the potential to reshape our democracy in powerful, terrible, and long-lasting ways. Let’s start with the good news.
THE GOOD NEWS
In a case about whether the Trump administration’s Commerce Department (and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross) could add a question to the census to ask all households about the citizenship of its members, the Court blocked the administration’s plans. It ruled that the administration’s explanation for including the controversial question was inadequate. The case will go back to the lower courts for review, and the question will not be used on the census forms, for now.
It’s still possible that the Trump administration will come back and try to offer a plausible reason for adding the question. The majority of the Court was not impressed in the least with the administration’s almost laughable reasoning for why it was in the administration’s interests to determine the citizenship of every resident. Chief Justice John Roberts rebuked the administration, writing that it had used “contrived reasons” for asking the citizenship question. All of the liberal justices joined Roberts in rejecting the census question, and the rest of the conservative justices sided with the administration.
Roberts wrote: “Reasoned decision-making under the Administrative Procedure Act calls for an explanation for agency action. What was provided here was more of a distraction.”
The Trump administration making up reasons and then lying in order to do something really bad? SHOCKING.
But time is running out. The census forms need to be printed very soon. We’ll see what happens.
Trump tweeted this afternoon that he plans to DELAY THE CENSUS, a bold and unprecedented move if by bold you mean “blatantly constitutional.” As The Hill points out, this delay would be a “significant drain on resources” since the census has already been scheduled and cause even more legal challenges.
WHAT IT MEANS
The Trump administration can’t add a question about the citizenship of household residents to the census form. Right now. However, next term, the Court might agree to hear the case again and rule differently if the administration comes up with a more legally justifiable reason. And as for Trump’s demand to push back the census until he gets the ruling he wants on the citizenship question? It’s so clearly unconstitutional that I can’t imagine that even his administration officials would carry out those orders. But then again should we trust this administration to uphold the constitution, even when its meaning is there in black and white? Probably not.
NOW THE VERY BAD NEWS (SORRY)
The other major decision of this term was about political gerrymanding. Gerrymandering is when one political party in power draws legislative maps in order for their party to win as many seats as possible. (Click here for an explanation from the New York Times about the way gerrymandering is accomplished and the specific types of gerrymandering.)
WHAT THE COURT DECIDED
In today’s ruling, the majority of the justices ruled that the Court has no business deciding whether political parties can gerrymander districts. In other words, if politicians want to redraw districts for partisan wins — even by gerrymandering them by race — the Court needs to stay out of it. Partisan election maps are totally okay.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: “Excessive partisanship in districting leads to results that reasonably seem unjust. But the fact that such gerrymandering is ‘incompatible with democratic principles’ … does not mean that the solution lies with the federal judiciary.”
All of the conservatives told us today that, no, ruling on redistricting is not their job. It’s up to Congress and state legislatures to figure this out.
You might read that explanation and think (like me), “Wait. What? Isn’t defending democratic principles such as the right of fair representation and fair voting practices sort of your job, Chief Justice?” and you would not be alone.
Federal courts in five states had already ruled that redistricting plans (like the ones brought before the Supreme Court in this case) had gone too far.
Justice Kagan responded, “For the first time ever, this court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities.”
In practical terms, this is a “huge victory for the Republican party,” according to CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.
WHAT IT MEANS
This ruling could open the floodgates on partisan gerrymandering that disproportionately punishes poor and minority communities and will further solidify Republican majorities in state legislatures, making it more difficult for progressive candidates to get elected.
Yes, this is really bad news for progressives, for people of color, and for anyone who doesn’t want permanent conservative majorities in state and national government.
What this really means is that the fight for the control of legislatures just got even more urgent.
The only way to end these forms of political gerrymandering is to kick Republicans out of state legislatures and out of state Supreme Courts and out of Congress.
Here’s what you can do to use your outside voice and fight:
- Donate to organizations specifically focused on ending gerrymandering and ensuring fairness in redistricting, such All On the Line. All On the Line is partnering with the National Democratic Redistricting Committee and the National Redistricting Committee to create a specific plan to end the manipulation of election maps.
- Join the Grassroots Redistricting Project. Swing Left, Run for Something, and Arena are partnering to help prevent Republicans from rigging elections. They’re focusing on winning back the state legislatures in 9 critical states (Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin).
- Work for ballot measures in your state to create independent, nonpartisan commissions to draw districts.
- Vote for state representatives, congresspeople, and senators who vow to fight partisan gerrymanding. Take back your state house from Republicans. As of this month, Republicans control 61 chambers and Democrats only 37.
The Supreme Court told us today that it wouldn’t protect us from partisan gerrymandering and from those in power choosing to pick the voters they want in their districts. We were shown that conservatives, including the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, are desperate to stay in power, whatever means necessary.
Elections have consequences. Let’s make sure that Republicans get the message next year that the American people do not want rigged elections.