Supreme Court Blocks Two Rulings Striking Down Voting Maps

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Friday blocked rulings from federal courts in Ohio and Michigan that had struck down voting maps in those states as unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders. Both courts had found that Republican legislators had violated the Constitution by drawing voting districts to hurt the electoral chances of Democratic candidates.

The Supreme Court’s move was expected. The justices will soon decide, in a second pair of cases, whether voting maps can ever be so warped by politics as to cross a constitutional line. The answer to that question, in pending cases from Maryland and North Carolina, will very likely affect the cases from Ohio and Michigan.

Friday’s orders were brief, gave no reasons and did not indicate that any justice had dissented.

In the Ohio case, a three-judge panel of a Federal District Court found that Republican state legislators had drawn maps that allowed their party’s candidates to gain an outsize partisan advantage in elections. Ohio is a swing state in which presidential and statewide elections can be close. But the state’s congressional maps, in effect since 2012, have consistently yielded delegations of 12 Republicans and four Democrats.

The panel ordered new maps to be drawn for the 2020 election, a ruling that the Supreme Court has now put on hold.

In the Michigan case, a three-judge panel of a different Federal District Court ruled that 34 congressional and state legislative districts in the state were unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders. The judges ordered state lawmakers to redraw maps in time for elections in 2020. The Supreme Court’s action put that ruling on hold, too.

Judge Eric L. Clay, writing for a unanimous panel in the Michigan case, said his court was joining “the growing chorus of federal courts” ready to address partisan gerrymandering.

The Supreme Court has never struck down an election map as a partisan gerrymander. But several lower courts have.

During arguments in March at the Supreme Court in the North Carolina and Maryland cases, some justices indicated they could not identify a standard to determine when politics had played too large a role in drawing voting maps. But the courts in Ohio and Michigan, along with other lower courts, said the task was not that hard.

Those courts asked whether the maps were intended to create a lasting partisan advantage, whether that had happened and whether the maps could nonetheless be justified for other reasons.

At the arguments in March, some justices said intervention by federal courts may not be needed in light of voter initiatives, legislation and State Supreme Court rulings. In the Michigan case, Judge Clay disagreed.

“Federal courts must not abdicate their responsibility to protect American voters from this unconstitutional and pernicious practice that undermines our democracy,” he wrote, adding that “judges — and justices — must act in accordance with their obligation to vindicate the constitutional rights of those harmed by partisan gerrymandering.”

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