Rucho v. Common Cause, 588 U.S. ___ (2019)



 [June 27, 2019]


Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court.

Voters and other plaintiffs in North Carolina and Maryland challenged their States’ congressional districting maps as unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders. The North Carolina plaintiffs complained that the State’s districting plan discriminated against Democrats; the Maryland plaintiffs complained that their State’s plan discriminated against Republicans. The plaintiffs alleged that the gerrymandering violated the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Elections Clause, and Article I, §2, of the Constitution. The District Courts in both cases ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, and the defendants appealed directly to this Court.

These cases require us to consider once again whether claims of excessive partisanship in districting are “justiciable”—that is, properly suited for resolution by the federal courts. This Court has not previously struck down a districting plan as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, and has struggled without success over the past several decades to discern judicially manageable standards for deciding such claims. The districting plans at issue here are highly partisan, by any measure. The question is whether the courts below appropriately exercised judicial power when they found them unconstitutional as well.


The first case involves a challenge to the congressional redistricting plan enacted by the Republican-controlled North Carolina General Assembly in 2016. Rucho v. Common Cause, No. 18–422. The Republican legislators leading the redistricting effort instructed their mapmaker to use political data to draw a map that would produce a congressional delegation of ten Republicans and three Democrats. As one of the two Republicans chairing the redistricting committee stated, “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats. So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country.” He further explained that the map was drawn with the aim of electing ten Republicans and three Democrats because he did “not believe it [would be] possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and 2 Democrats.” One Democratic state senator objected that entrenching the 10–3 advantage for Republicans was not “fair, reasonable, [or] balanced” because, as recently as 2012, “Democratic congressional candidates had received more votes on a statewide basis than Republican candidates.” The General Assembly was not swayed by that objection and approved the 2016 Plan by a party-line vote.

In November 2016, North Carolina conducted congressional elections using the 2016 Plan, and Republican candidates won 10 of the 13 congressional districts. In the 2018 elections, Republican candidates won nine congressional districts, while Democratic candidates won three. The Republican candidate narrowly prevailed in the remaining district, but the State Board of Elections called a new election after allegations of fraud.


This litigation began in August 2016, when the North Carolina Democratic Party, Common Cause (a nonprofit organization), and 14 individual North Carolina voters sued the two lawmakers who had led the redistricting effort and other state defendants in Federal District Court. Shortly thereafter, the League of Women Voters of North Carolina and a dozen additional North Carolina voters filed a similar complaint. The two cases were consolidated.

The plaintiffs challenged the 2016 Plan on multiple constitutional grounds. First, they alleged that the Plan violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by intentionally diluting the electoral strength of Democratic voters. Second, they claimed that the Plan violated their First Amendment rights by retaliating against supporters of Democratic candidates on the basis of their political beliefs. Third, they asserted that the Plan usurped the right of “the People” to elect their preferred candidates for Congress, in violation of the requirement in Article I, §2, of the Constitution that Members of the House of Representatives be chosen “by the People of the several States.” Finally, they alleged that the Plan violated the Elections Clause by exceeding the State’s delegated authority to prescribe the “Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections” for Members of Congress.

After a four-day trial, the three-judge District Court unanimously concluded that the 2016 Plan violated the Equal Protection Clause and Article I of the Constitution. The court further held, with Judge Osteen dissenting, that the Plan violated the First Amendment. Common Cause v. Rucho, 279 F. Supp. 3d 587. The defendants appealed directly to this Court under 28 U. S. C. §1253.

While that appeal was pending, we decided Gill v. Whitford (2018), a partisan gerrymandering case out of Wisconsin. In that case, we held that a plaintiff asserting a partisan gerrymandering claim based on a theory of vote dilution must establish standing by showing he lives in an allegedly “cracked” or “packed” district. A “cracked” district is one in which a party’s supporters are divided among multiple districts, so that they fall short of a majority in each; a “packed” district is one in which a party’s supporters are highly concentrated, so they win that district by a large margin, “wasting” many votes that would improve their chances in others.

After deciding Gill, we remanded the present case for further consideration by the District Court. On remand, the District Court again struck down the 2016 Plan . . . . On the merits, the court found that “the General Assembly’s predominant intent was to discriminate against voters who supported or were likely to support non-Republican candidates,” and to “entrench Republican candidates” through widespread cracking and packing of Democratic voters. The court rejected the defendants’ arguments that the distribution of Republican and Democratic voters throughout North Carolina and the interest in protecting incumbents neutrally explained the 2016 Plan’s discriminatory effects. In the end, the District Court held that 12 of the 13 districts constituted partisan gerrymanders that violated the Equal Protection Clause.

The court also agreed with the plaintiffs that the 2016 Plan discriminated against them because of their political speech and association, in violation of the First Amendment. The District Court enjoined the State from using the 2016 Plan in any election after the November 2018 general election.

The defendants again appealed to this Court . . .


The second case before us is Lamone v. Benisek, No. 18–726. In 2011, the Maryland Legislature—dominated by Democrats—undertook to redraw the lines of that State’s eight congressional districts. The Governor at the time, Democrat Martin O’Malley, led the process. He appointed a redistricting committee to help redraw the map, and asked Congressman Steny Hoyer, who has described himself as a “serial gerrymanderer,” to advise the committee. The Governor later testified that his aim was to “use the redistricting process to change the overall composition of Maryland’s congressional delegation to 7 Democrats and 1 Republican by flipping” one district. Ibid. . . .[The plan] was used in the 2012 election and succeeded in flipping the Sixth District. A Democrat has held the seat ever since.

In November 2013, three Maryland voters filed this lawsuit. They alleged that the 2011 Plan violated the First Amendment, the Elections Clause, and Article I, §2, of the Constitution. After considerable procedural skirmishing and litigation over preliminary relief, the District Court entered summary judgment for the plaintiffs . . . .


Article III of the Constitution limits federal courts to deciding “Cases” and “Controversies.” We have understood that limitation to mean that federal courts can address only questions “historically viewed as capable of resolution through the judicial process” . . . . Among the political question cases the Court has identified are those that lack “judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving [them].” Last Term in Gill v. Whitford, we reviewed our partisan gerrymandering cases and concluded that those cases “leave unresolved whether such claims may be brought.” The question here is whether there is an “appropriate role for the Federal Judiciary” in remedying the problem of partisan gerrymandering—whether such claims are claims of legal right, resolvable according to legal principles, or political questions that must find their resolution elsewhere.

Partisan gerrymandering is nothing new. Nor is frustration with it. The practice was known in the Colonies prior to Independence, and the Framers were familiar with it at the time of the drafting and ratification of the Constitution. During the very first congressional elections, George Washington and his Federalist allies accused Patrick Henry of trying to gerrymander Virginia’s districts against their candidates—in particular James Madison, who ultimately prevailed over fellow future President James Monroe.

In 1812, Governor of Massachusetts and future Vice President Elbridge Gerry notoriously approved congressional districts that the legislature had drawn to aid the Democratic-Republican Party. The moniker “gerrymander” was born when an outraged Federalist newspaper observed that one of the misshapen districts resembled a salamander. “By 1840, the gerrymander was a recognized force in party politics and was generally attempted in all legislation enacted for the formation of election districts. It was generally conceded that each party would attempt to gain power which was not proportionate to its numerical strength.”

The Framers addressed the election of Representatives to Congress in the Elections Clause. Art. I, §4, cl. 1. That provision assigns to state legislatures the power to prescribe the “Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections” for Members of Congress, while giving Congress the power to “make or alter” any such regulations. Whether to give that supervisory authority to the National Government was debated at the Constitutional Convention. When those opposed to such congressional oversight moved to strike the relevant language, Madison came to its defense: “[T]he State Legislatures will sometimes fail or refuse to consult the common interest at the expense of their local coveniency or prejudices. . . . Whenever the State Legislatures had a favorite measure to carry, they would take care so to mould their regulations as to favor the candidates they wished to succeed.”

Congress has regularly exercised its Elections Clause power, including to address partisan gerrymandering. The Apportionment Act of 1842, which required single-member districts for the first time, specified that those districts be “composed of contiguous territory,” Congress also used its Elections Clause power in 1870, enacting the first comprehensive federal statute dealing with elections as a way to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment. Starting in the 1950s, Congress enacted a series of laws to protect the right to vote through measures such as the suspension of literacy tests and the prohibition of English-only elections.

Appellants suggest that, through the Elections Clause, the Framers set aside electoral issues such as the one before us as questions that only Congress can resolve.  We do not agree. In two areas—one-person, one-vote and racial gerrymandering—our cases have held that there is a role for the courts with respect to at least some issues that could arise from a State’s drawing of congressional districts.

But the history is not irrelevant. The Framers were aware of electoral districting problems and considered what to do about them. They settled on a characteristic approach, assigning the issue to the state legislatures, expressly checked and balanced by the Federal Congress. As Alexander Hamilton explained, “it will . . . not be denied that a discretionary power over elections ought to exist somewhere. It will, I presume, be as readily conceded that there were only three ways in which this power could have been reasonably modified and disposed: that it must either have been lodged wholly in the national legislature, or wholly in the State legislatures, or primarily in the latter, and ultimately in the former.” The Federalist No. 59. At no point was there a suggestion that the federal courts had a role to play. Nor was there any indication that the Framers had ever heard of courts doing such a thing. Courts have nevertheless been called upon to resolve a variety of questions surrounding districting. Early on, doubts were raised about the competence of the federal courts to resolve those questions.

In the leading case of Baker v. Carr, voters in Tennessee complained that the State’s districting plan for state representatives “debase[d]” their votes, because the plan was predicated on a 60-year-old census that no longer reflected the distribution of population in the State. The plaintiffs argued that votes of people in overpopulated districts held less value than those of people in less-populated districts, and that this inequality violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The District Court dismissed the action on the ground that the claim was not justiciable, relying on this Court’s precedents, including Colegrove. This Court reversed. It identified various considerations relevant to determining whether a claim is a nonjusticiable political question, including whether there is “a lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it.” The Court concluded that the claim of population inequality among districts did not fall into that category, because such a claim could be decided under basic equal protection principles. In Wesberry v. Sanders, the Court extended its ruling to malapportionment of congressional districts, holding that Article I, §2, required that “one man’s vote in a congressional election is to be worth as much as another’s.”

Another line of challenges to districting plans has focused on race. Laws that explicitly discriminate on the basis of race, as well as those that are race neutral on their face but are unexplainable on grounds other than race, are of course presumptively invalid. The Court applied those principles to electoral boundaries in Gomillion v. Lightfoot, concluding that a challenge to an “uncouth twenty-eight sided” municipal boundary line that excluded black voters from city elections stated a constitutional claim.

Partisan gerrymandering claims have proved far more difficult to adjudicate. The basic reason is that, while it is illegal for a jurisdiction to depart from the one-person, one-vote rule, or to engage in racial discrimination in districting, “a jurisdiction may engage in constitutional political gerrymandering.”

To hold that legislators cannot take partisan interests into account when drawing district lines would essentially countermand the Framers’ decision to entrust districting to political entities. The “central problem” is not determining whether a jurisdiction has engaged in partisan gerrymandering. It is “determining when political gerrymandering has gone too far.”

. . . . As we summed up last Term in Gill, our “considerable efforts in Gaffney, Bandemer, Vieth, and LULAC leave unresolved whether . . . claims [of legal right] may be brought in cases involving allegations of partisan gerrymandering.”


In considering whether partisan gerrymandering claims are justiciable, we are mindful of Justice Kennedy’s counsel in Vieth: Any standard for resolving such claims must be grounded in a “limited and precise rationale” and be “clear, manageable, and politically neutral.” An important reason for those careful constraints is that, as a Justice with extensive experience in state and local politics put it, “[t]he opportunity to control the drawing of electoral boundaries through the legislative process of apportionment is a critical and traditional part of politics in the United States.” An expansive standard requiring “the correction of all election district lines drawn for partisan reasons would commit federal and state courts to unprecedented intervention in the American political process.”

As noted, the question is one of degree: How to “provid[e] a standard for deciding how much partisan dominance is too much.” And it is vital in such circumstances that the Court act only in accord with especially clear standards: “With uncertain limits, intervening courts—even when proceeding with best intentions—would risk assuming political, not legal, responsibility for a process that often produces ill will and distrust.” If federal courts are to “inject [themselves] into the most heated partisan issues” by adjudicating partisan gerrymandering claims, they must be armed with a standard that can reliably differentiate unconstitutional from “constitutional political gerrymandering.”

Partisan gerrymandering claims rest on an instinct that groups with a certain level of political support should enjoy a commensurate level of political power and influence. Explicitly or implicitly, a districting map is alleged to be unconstitutional because it makes it too difficult for one party to translate statewide support into seats in the legislature. But such a claim is based on a “norm that does not exist” in our electoral system—“statewide elections for representatives along party lines.”

Partisan gerrymandering claims invariably sound in a desire for proportional representation. As Justice O’Connor put it, such claims are based on “a conviction that the greater the departure from proportionality, the more suspect an apportionment plan becomes.” “Our cases, however, clearly foreclose any claim that the Constitution requires proportional representation or that legislatures in reapportioning must draw district lines to come as near as possible to allocating seats to the contending parties in proportion to what their anticipated statewide vote will be.

The Founders certainly did not think proportional representation was required. For more than 50 years after ratification of the Constitution, many States elected their congressional representatives through at-large or “general ticket” elections. Such States typically sent single-party delegations to Congress. That meant that a party could garner nearly half of the vote statewide and wind up without any seats in the congressional delegation. The Whigs in Alabama suffered that fate in 1840: “their party garnered 43 percent of the statewide vote, yet did not receive a single seat.” When Congress required single-member districts in the Apportionment Act of 1842, it was not out of a general sense of fairness, but instead a (mis)calculation by the Whigs that such a change would improve their electoral prospects.

Unable to claim that the Constitution requires proportional representation outright, plaintiffs inevitably ask the courts to make their own political judgment about how much representation particular political parties deserve—based on the votes of their supporters—and to rearrange the challenged districts to achieve that end. But federal courts are not equipped to apportion political power as a matter of fairness, nor is there any basis for concluding that they were authorized to do so. As Justice Scalia put it for the plurality in Vieth: “ ‘Fairness’ does not seem to us a judicially manage- able standard. . . . Some criterion more solid and more demonstrably met than that seems to us necessary to enable the state legislatures to discern the limits of their districting discretion, to meaningfully constrain the discretion of the courts, and to win public acceptance for the courts’ intrusion into a process that is the very foundation of democratic decisionmaking.”

The initial difficulty in settling on a “clear, manageable and politically neutral” test for fairness is that it is not even clear what fairness looks like in this context. There is a large measure of “unfairness” in any winner-take-all system. Fairness may mean a greater number of competitive districts. Such a claim seeks to undo packing and cracking so that supporters of the disadvantaged party have a better shot at electing their preferred candidates. But making as many districts as possible more competitive could be a recipe for disaster for the disadvantaged party. As Justice White has pointed out, “[i]f all or most of the districts are competitive . . . even a narrow statewide preference for either party would produce an overwhelming majority for the winning party in the state legislature.”

On the other hand, perhaps the ultimate objective of a “fairer” share of seats in the congressional delegation is most readily achieved by yielding to the gravitational pull of proportionality and engaging in cracking and packing, to ensure each party its “appropriate” share of “safe” seats. Such an approach, however, comes at the expense of competitive districts and of individuals in districts allocated to the opposing party.

Or perhaps fairness should be measured by adherence to “traditional” districting criteria, such as maintaining political subdivisions, keeping communities of interest together, and protecting incumbents. But protecting incumbents, for example, enshrines a particular partisan distribution. And the “natural political geography” of a State—such as the fact that urban electoral districts are often dominated by one political party—can itself lead to inherently packed districts. As Justice Kennedy has explained, traditional criteria such as compactness and contiguity “cannot promise political neutrality when used as the basis for relief. Instead, it seems, a decision under these standards would unavoidably have significant political effect, whether intended or not.”

Deciding among just these different visions of fairness (you can imagine many others) poses basic questions that are political, not legal. There are no legal standards discernible in the Constitution for making such judgments, let alone limited and precise standards that are clear, manageable, and politically neutral. Any judicial decision on what is “fair” in this context would be an “unmoored determination” of the sort characteristic of a political question beyond the competence of the federal courts.

And it is only after determining how to define fairness that you can even begin to answer the determinative question: “How much is too much?” At what point does permissible partisanship become unconstitutional? If compliance with traditional districting criteria is the fairness touchstone, for example, how much deviation from those criteria is constitutionally acceptable and how should map drawers prioritize competing criteria? Should a court “reverse gerrymander” other parts of a State to counteract “natural” gerrymandering caused, for example, by the urban concentration of one party? If a districting plan protected half of the incumbents but redistricted the rest into head to head races, would that be constitutional? A court would have to rank the relative importance of those traditional criteria and weigh how much deviation from each to allow.

If a court instead focused on the respective number of seats in the legislature, it would have to decide the ideal number of seats for each party and determine at what point deviation from that balance went too far. If a 5–3 allocation corresponds most closely to statewide vote totals, is a 6–2 allocation permissible, given that legislatures have the authority to engage in a certain degree of partisan gerrymandering? Which seats should be packed and which cracked? Or if the goal is as many competitive districts as possible, how close does the split need to be for the district to be considered competitive? Presumably not all districts could qualify, so how to choose? Even assuming the court knew which version of fairness to be looking for, there are no discernible and manageable standards for deciding whether there has been a violation. The questions are “unguided and ill-suited to the development of judicial standards.”

Appellees contend that if we can adjudicate one-person, one-vote claims, we can also assess partisan gerrymandering claims. But the one-person, one-vote rule is relatively easy to administer as a matter of math. The same cannot be said of partisan gerrymandering claims, because the Constitution supplies no objective measure for assessing whether a districting map treats a political party fairly. It hardly follows from the principle that each person must have an equal say in the election of representatives that a person is entitled to have his political party achieve representation in some way commensurate to its share of statewide support.

More fundamentally, “vote dilution” in the one-person, one-vote cases refers to the idea that each vote must carry equal weight. In other words, each representative must be accountable to (approximately) the same number of constituents. That requirement does not extend to political parties. It does not mean that each party must be influential in proportion to its number of supporters. As we stated unanimously in Gill, “this Court is not responsible for vindicating generalized partisan preferences. The Court’s constitutionally prescribed role is to vindicate the individual rights of the people appearing before it.”

Nor do our racial gerrymandering cases provide an appropriate standard for assessing partisan gerrymandering. “[N]othing in our case law compels the conclusion that racial and political gerrymanders are subject to precisely the same constitutional scrutiny. In fact, our country’s long and persistent history of racial discrimination in voting—as well as our Fourteenth Amendment jurisprudence, which always has reserved the strictest scrutiny for discrimination on the basis of race—would seem to compel the opposite conclusion.” Unlike partisan gerrymandering claims, a racial gerrymandering claim does not ask for a fair share of political power and influence, with all the justiciability conundrums that entails. It asks instead for the elimination of a racial classification. A partisan gerrymandering claim cannot ask for the elimination of partisanship.


Appellees and the dissent propose a number of “tests” for evaluating partisan gerrymandering claims, but none meets the need for a limited and precise standard that is judicially discernible and manageable. And none provides a solid grounding for judges to take the extraordinary step of reallocating power and influence between political parties.

The Common Cause District Court concluded that all but one of the districts in North Carolina’s 2016 Plan violated the Equal Protection Clause by intentionally diluting the voting strength of Democrats. In reaching that result the court first required the plaintiffs to prove “that a legislative map drawer’s predominant purpose in drawing the lines of a particular district was to ‘subordinate adherents of one political party and entrench a rival party in power.’ ”

The District Court’s “predominant intent” prong is borrowed from the racial gerrymandering context. In racial gerrymandering cases, we rely on a “predominant intent” inquiry to determine whether race was, in fact, the reason particular district boundaries were drawn the way they were. If district lines were drawn for the purpose of separating racial groups, then they are subject to strict scrutiny because race-based decision-making is inherently suspect . . . A permissible intent—securing partisan advantage—does not become constitutionally impermissible, like racial discrimination, when that permissible intent “predominates.”

The District Court tried to limit the reach of its test by requiring plaintiffs to show, in addition to predominant partisan intent, that vote dilution “is likely to persist” to such a degree that the elected representative will feel free to ignore the concerns of the supporters of the minority party. But “[t]o allow district courts to strike down apportionment plans on the basis of their prognostications as to the outcome of future elections . . . invites ‘findings’ on matters as to which neither judges nor anyone else can have any confidence.” And the test adopted by the Common Cause court requires a far more nuanced prediction than simply who would prevail in future political contests. Judges must forecast with unspecified certainty whether a prospective winner will have a margin of victory sufficient to permit him to ignore the supporters of his defeated opponent (whoever that may turn out to be). Judges not only have to pick the winner—they have to beat the point spread. . . .


The District Courts also found partisan gerrymandering claims justiciable under the First Amendment, coalescing around a basic three-part test: proof of intent to burden individuals based on their voting history or party affiliation; an actual burden on political speech or associational rights; and a causal link between the invidious intent and actual burden. Both District Courts concluded that the districting plans at issue violated the plaintiffs’ First Amendment right to association. The District Court in North Carolina relied on testimony that, after the 2016 Plan was put in place, the plaintiffs faced “difficulty raising money, attracting candidates, and mobilizing voters to support the political causes and issues such Plaintiffs sought to advance.” Similarly, the District Court in Maryland examined testimony that “revealed a lack of enthusiasm, indifference to voting, a sense of disenfranchisement, a sense of disconnection, and confusion,” and concluded that Republicans in the Sixth District “were burdened in fundraising, attracting volunteers, campaigning, and generating interest in voting.”

To begin, there are no restrictions on speech, association, or any other First Amendment activities in the districting plans at issue. The plaintiffs are free to engage in those activities no matter what the effect of a plan may be on their district.

The plaintiffs’ argument is that partisanship in districting should be regarded as simple discrimination against supporters of the opposing party on the basis of political viewpoint. Under that theory, any level of partisanship in districting would constitute an infringement of their First Amendment rights. But as the Court has explained, “[i]t would be idle . . . to contend that any political consideration taken into account in fashioning a reapportionment plan is sufficient to invalidate it. The First Amendment test simply describes the act of districting for partisan advantage. It provides no standard for determining when partisan activity goes too far.

As for actual burden, the slight anecdotal evidence found sufficient by the District Courts in these cases shows that this too is not a serious standard for separating constitutional from unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering. The District Courts relied on testimony about difficulty drumming up volunteers and enthusiasm. How much of a decline in voter engagement is enough to constitute a First Amendment burden? How many door knocks must go unanswered? How many petitions unsigned? How many calls for volunteers unheeded? . . . .

These cases involve blatant examples of partisanship driving districting decisions. But the First Amendment analysis below offers no “clear” and “manageable” way of distinguishing permissible from impermissible partisan motivation. The Common Cause court embraced that conclusion, observing that “a judicially manageable framework for evaluating partisan gerrymandering claims need not distinguish an ‘acceptable’ level of partisan gerrymandering from ‘excessive’ partisan gerrymandering” because “the Constitution does not authorize state redistricting bodies to engage in such partisan gerrymandering.” The decisions below prove the prediction of the Vieth plurality that “a First Amendment claim, if it were sustained, would render unlawful all consideration of political affiliation in districting, contrary to our established precedent.


The dissent proposes using a State’s own districting criteria as a neutral baseline from which to measure how extreme a partisan gerrymander is. The dissent would have us line up all the possible maps drawn using those criteria according to the partisan distribution they would produce. Distance from the “median” map would indicate whether a particular districting plan harms supporters of one party to an unconstitutional extent.

As an initial matter, it does not make sense to use criteria that will vary from State to State and year to year as the baseline for determining whether a gerrymander violates the Federal Constitution. The degree of partisan advantage that the Constitution tolerates should not turn on criteria offered by the gerrymanderers themselves. It is easy to imagine how different criteria could move the median map toward different partisan distributions. As a result, the same map could be constitutional or not depending solely on what the mapmakers said they set out to do. That possibility illustrates that the dissent’s proposed constitutional test is indeterminate and arbitrary.

Even if we were to accept the dissent’s proposed baseline, it would return us to “the original unanswerable question (How much political motivation and effect is too much?).” Would twenty percent away from the median map be okay? Forty percent? Sixty percent? Why or why not? (We appreciate that the dissent finds all the unanswerable questions annoying, but it seems a useful way to make the point.) The dissent’s answer says it all: “This much is too much.” That is not even trying to articulate a standard or rule.

The dissent argues that there are other instances in law where matters of degree are left to the courts. True enough. But those instances typically involve constitutional or statutory provisions or common law confining and guiding the exercise of judicial discretion. . . .


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. We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts. Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions. “[J]udicial action must be governed by standard, by rule,” and must be “principled, rational, and based upon reasoned distinctions” found in the Constitution or laws. Judicial review of partisan gerrymandering does not meet those basic requirements.

Today the dissent essentially embraces the argument that the Court unanimously rejected in Gill: “this Court can address the problem of partisan gerrymandering because it must.” That is not the test of our authority under the Constitution; that document instead “confines the federal courts to a properly judicial role.”

What the appellees and dissent seek is an unprecedented expansion of judicial power. We have never struck down a partisan gerrymander as unconstitutional—despite various requests over the past 45 years. The expansion of judicial authority would not be into just any area of controversy, but into one of the most intensely partisan aspects of American political life. That intervention would be unlimited in scope and duration—it would recur over and over again around the country with each new round of districting, for state as well as federal representatives. Consideration of the impact of today’s ruling on democratic principles cannot ignore the effect of the unelected and politically unaccountable branch of the Federal Government assuming such an extraordinary and unprecedented role.

Our conclusion does not condone excessive partisan gerrymandering. Nor does our conclusion condemn complaints about districting to echo into a void. The States, for example, are actively addressing the issue on a number of fronts. . . . Other States have mandated at least some of the traditional districting criteria for their mapmakers. Some have outright prohibited partisan favoritism in redistricting.

As noted, the Framers gave Congress the power to do something about partisan gerrymandering in the Elections Clause. . . . We simply note that the avenue for reform established by the Framers, and used by Congress in the past, remains open.

No one can accuse this Court of having a crabbed view of the reach of its competence. But we have no commission to allocate political power and influence in the absence of a constitutional directive or legal standards to guide us in the exercise of such authority. “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” Marbury v Madison. In this rare circumstance, that means our duty is to say “this is not law.”


Justice Kagan, with whom Justice Ginsburg, Justice Breyer, and Justice Sotomayor join, dissenting.

For the first time ever, this Court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities.

And not just any constitutional violation. The partisan gerrymanders in these cases deprived citizens of the most fundamental of their constitutional rights: the rights to participate equally in the political process, to join with others to advance political beliefs, and to choose their political representatives. In so doing, the partisan gerrymanders here debased and dishonored our democracy, turning upside-down the core American idea that all governmental power derives from the people. These gerrymanders enabled politicians to entrench themselves in office as against voters’ preferences. They promoted partisanship above respect for the popular will. They encouraged a politics of polarization and dysfunction. If left unchecked, gerrymanders like the ones here may irreparably damage our system of government.

And checking them is not beyond the courts. The majority’s abdication comes just when courts across the country, including those below, have coalesced around manageable judicial standards to resolve partisan gerrymandering claims. Those standards satisfy the majority’s own benchmarks. They do not require—indeed, they do not permit—courts to rely on their own ideas of electoral fairness, whether proportional representation or any other. And they limit courts to correcting only egregious gerrymanders, so judges do not become omnipresent players in the political process. But yes, the standards used here do allow—as well they should—judicial intervention in the worst-of-the-worst cases of democratic subversion, causing blatant constitutional harms. In other words, they allow courts to undo partisan gerrymanders of the kind we face today from North Carolina and Maryland. In giving such gerrymanders a pass from judicial review, the majority goes tragically wrong.


Maybe the majority errs in these cases because it pays so little attention to the constitutional harms at their core. After dutifully reciting each case’s facts, the majority leaves them forever behind, instead immersing itself in everything that could conceivably go amiss if courts became involved. So it is necessary to fill in the gaps. To recount exactly what politicians in North Carolina and Maryland did to entrench their parties in political office, whatever the electorate might think. And to elaborate on the constitutional injury those politicians wreaked, to our democratic system and to individuals’ rights. All that will help in considering whether courts confronting partisan gerrymandering claims are really so hamstrung—so un- able to carry out their constitutional duties—as the majority thinks.

The plaintiffs here challenge two congressional districting plans—one adopted by Republicans in North Carolina and the other by Democrats in Maryland—as unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders. As I relate what happened in those two States, ask yourself: Is this how American democracy is supposed to work?

Start with North Carolina. After the 2010 census, the North Carolina General Assembly, with Republican majorities in both its House and its Senate, enacted a new congressional districting plan. That plan governed the two next national elections. In 2012, Republican candidates won 9 of the State’s 13 seats in the U. S. House of Representatives, although they received only 49% of the statewide vote. In 2014, Republican candidates increased their total to 10 of the 13 seats, this time based on 55% of the vote. Soon afterward, a District Court struck down two districts in the plan as unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. The General Assembly, with both chambers still controlled by Republicans, went back to the drawing board to craft the needed remedial state map. And here is how the process unfolded:

The Republican co-chairs of the Assembly’s redistricting committee, Rep. David Lewis and Sen. Robert Rucho, instructed Dr. Thomas Hofeller, a Republican districting specialist, to create a new map that would maintain the 10–3 composition of the State’s congressional delegation come what might. Using sophisticated technological tools and precinct-level election results selected to predict voting behavior, Hofeller drew district lines to minimize Democrats’ voting strength and ensure the election of 10 Republican Congressmen.

Lewis then presented for the redistricting committee’s (retroactive) approval a list of the criteria Hofeller had employed—including one labeled “Partisan Advantage.” That criterion, endorsed by a party-line vote, stated that the committee would make all “reasonable efforts to construct districts” to “maintain the current [10–3] partisan makeup” of the State’s congressional delegation.

Lewis explained the Partisan Advantage criterion to legislators as follows: We are “draw[ing] the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and 3 Democrats because [I] d[o] not believe it[’s] possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and 2 Democrats.”

The committee and the General Assembly later enacted, again on a party-line vote, the map Hofeller had drawn.

Lewis announced: “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats. So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country

You might think that judgment best left to the American people. But give Lewis credit for this much: The map has worked just as he planned and predicted. In 2016, Republican congressional candidates won 10 of North Carolina’s 13 seats, with 53% of the statewide vote. Two years later, Republican candidates won 9 of 12 seats though they received only 50% of the vote. (The 13th seat has not yet been filled because fraud tainted the initial election.)

Events in Maryland make for a similarly grisly tale. For 50 years, Maryland’s 8-person congressional delegation typically consisted of 2 or 3 Republicans and 5 or 6 Democrats. After the 2000 districting, for example, the First and Sixth Districts reliably elected Republicans, and the other districts as reliably elected Democrats. But in the 2010 districting cycle, the State’s Democratic leaders, who controlled the governorship and both houses of the General Assembly, decided to press their advantage.

Governor Martin O’Malley, who oversaw the process, decided (in his own later words) “to create a map that was more favorable for Democrats over the next ten years.” Because flipping the First District was geographically next-to-impossible, “a decision was made to go for the Sixth.”

O’Malley appointed an advisory committee as the public face of his effort, while asking Congressman Steny Hoyer, a self-described “serial gerrymanderer,” to hire and direct a mapmaker. Hoyer retained Eric Hawkins, an analyst at a political consulting firm providing services to Democrats.

Hawkins received only two instructions: to ensure that the new map produced 7 reliable Democratic seats, and to protect all Democratic incumbents.

Using similar technologies and election data as Hofeller, Hawkins produced a map to those specifications. Although new census figures required removing only 10,000 residents from the Sixth District, Hawkins proposed a large-scale population transfer. The map moved about 360,000 voters out of the district and another 350,000 in. That swap decreased the number of registered Republicans in the district by over 66,000 and increased the number of registered Democrats by about 24,000, all to produce a safe Democratic district.

The General Assembly adopted the plan on a party-line vote. Maryland’s Democrats proved no less successful than North Carolina’s Republicans in devising a voter-proof map. In the four elections that followed (from 2012 through 2018), Democrats have never received more than 65% of the statewide congressional vote. Yet in each of those elections, Democrats have won (you guessed it) 7 of 8 House seats—including the once-reliably-Republican Sixth District.

Now back to the question I asked before: Is that how American democracy is supposed to work? I have yet to meet the person who thinks so.

“Governments,” the Declaration of Independence states, “deriv[e] their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.” The Constitution begins: “We the People of the United States.” The Gettysburg Address (almost) ends: “[G]overnment of the people, by the people, for the people.” If there is a single idea that made our Nation (and that our Nation commended to the world), it is this one: The people are sovereign. The “power,” James Madison wrote, “is in the people over the Government, and not in the Government over the people.”

. . . .Election day—next year, and two years later, and two years after that—is what links the people to their representatives, and gives the people their sovereign power. That day is the foundation of democratic governance.

And partisan gerrymandering can make it meaningless. . . .

The majority disputes none of this. I think it important to underscore that fact: The majority disputes none of what I have said (or will say) about how gerrymanders undermine democracy. Indeed, the majority concedes (really, how could it not?) that gerrymandering is “incompatible with democratic principles.” And therefore what? That recognition would seem to demand a response. The majority offers two ideas that might qualify as such. One is that the political process can deal with the problem—a proposition so dubious on its face that I feel secure in delaying my answer for some time. The other is that partisan gerrymandering has always been with us. The majority does not frame that point as an originalist constitutional argument. After all (as the majority rightly notes), racial and residential gerrymanders were also once with us, but the Court has done something about that fact. The majority’s idea instead seems to be that if we have lived with partisan gerrymanders so long, we will survive.


That complacency has no cause. Yes, partisan gerrymandering goes back to the Republic’s earliest days. (As does vociferous opposition to it.) But big data and modern technology—of just the kind that the mapmakers in North Carolina and Maryland used—make today’s gerrymandering altogether different from the crude line-drawing of the past. Old-time efforts, based on little more than guesses, sometimes led to so-called dummymanders—gerrymanders that went spectacularly wrong. Not likely in today’s world. Mapmakers now have access to more granular data about party preference and voting behavior than ever before. County-level voting data has given way to precinct-level or city-block-level data; and increasingly, mapmakers avail themselves of data sets providing wide-ranging information about even individual voters. Just as important, advancements in computing technology have enabled mapmakers to put that information to use with unprecedented efficiency and precision. While bygone mapmakers may have drafted three or four alternative districting plans, today’s mapmakers can generate thousands of possibilities at the touch of a key—and then choose the one giving their party maximum advantage (usually while still meeting traditional districting requirements). The effect is to make gerrymanders far more effective and durable than before, insulating politicians against all but the most titanic shifts in the political tides. These are not your grandfather’s—let alone the Framers’—gerrymanders.

The proof is in the 2010 pudding. That redistricting cycle produced some of the most extreme partisan gerrymanders in this country’s history.  . . .

Partisan gerrymandering of the kind before us not only subverts democracy (as if that weren’t bad enough). It violates individuals’ constitutional rights as well. That statement is not the lonesome cry of a dissenting Justice. This Court has recognized extreme partisan gerrymandering as such a violation for many years.

Partisan gerrymandering operates through vote dilution—the devaluation of one citizen’s vote as compared to others. A mapmaker draws district lines to “pack” and “crack” voters likely to support the disfavored party. He packs supermajorities of those voters into a relatively few districts, in numbers far greater than needed for their preferred candidates to prevail. Then he cracks the rest across many more districts, spreading them so thin that their candidates will not be able to win. Whether the person is packed or cracked, his vote carries less weight—has less consequence—than it would under a neutrally drawn (non-partisan) map. In short, the mapmaker has made some votes count for less, because they are likely to go for the other party.

That practice implicates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The Fourteenth Amendment, we long ago recognized, “guarantees the opportunity for equal participation by all voters in the election” of legislators.  . ..

And partisan gerrymandering implicates the First Amendment too. That Amendment gives its greatest protection to political beliefs, speech, and association. Yet partisan gerrymanders subject certain voters to “disfavored treatment”—again, counting their votes for less—precisely because of “their voting history [and] their expression of political views.” And added to that strictly personal harm is an associational one. Representative democracy is “unimaginable without the ability of citizens to band together in [support of] candidates who espouse their political views.”

Though different Justices have described the constitutional harm in diverse ways, nearly all have agreed on this much: Extreme partisan gerrymandering (as happened in North Carolina and Maryland) violates the Constitution. . . .

So the only way to understand the majority’s opinion is as follows: In the face of grievous harm to democratic governance and flagrant infringements on individuals’ rights—in the face of escalating partisan manipulation whose compatibility with this Nation’s values and law no one defends—the majority declines to provide any remedy. For the first time in this Nation’s history, the majority declares that it can do nothing about an acknowledged constitutional violation because it has searched high and low and cannot find a workable legal standard to apply. . . .

I’ll give the majority this one—and important—thing: It identifies some dangers everyone should want to avoid. Judges should not be apportioning political power based on their own vision of electoral fairness, whether proportional representation or any other. And judges should not be striking down maps left, right, and center, on the view that every smidgen of politics is a smidgen too much. Respect for state legislative processes—and restraint in the exercise of judicial authority—counsels intervention in only egregious cases.

But in throwing up its hands, the majority misses something under its nose: What it says can’t be done has been done. Over the past several years, federal courts across the country—including, but not exclusively, in the decisions below—have largely converged on a standard for adjudicating partisan gerrymandering claims (striking down both Democratic and Republican districting plans in the process). And that standard does what the majority says is impossible. The standard does not use any judge-made conception of electoral fairness—either proportional representation or any other; instead, it takes as its baseline a State’s own criteria of fairness, apart from partisan gain. And by requiring plaintiffs to make difficult showings relating to both purpose and effects, the standard invalidates the most extreme, but only the most extreme, partisan gerrymanders. . . .

The majority’s broadest claim, as I’ve noted, is that this is a price we must pay because judicial oversight of partisan gerrymandering cannot be “politically neutral” or “manageable.” Courts, the majority argues, will have to choose among contested notions of electoral fairness. (Should they take as the ideal mode of districting proportional representation, many competitive seats, adherence to traditional districting criteria, or so forth?) And even once courts have chosen, the majority continues, they will have to decide “[h]ow much is too much?”—that is, how much deviation from the chosen “touchstone” to allow? In answering that question, the majority surmises, they will likely go far too far. So the whole thing is impossible, the majority concludes. To prove its point, the majority throws a bevy of question marks on the page. (I count nine in just two paragraphs.) But it never tries to analyze the serious question presented here—whether the kind of standard developed below falls prey to those objections, or instead allows for neutral and manageable oversight. The answer, as you’ve already heard enough to know, is the latter. That kind of oversight is not only possible; it’s been done. . . .


This Court has long understood that it has a special responsibility to remedy violations of constitutional rights resulting from politicians’ districting decisions. Over 50 years ago, we committed to providing judicial review in that sphere, recognizing as we established the one-person-one-vote rule that “our oath and our office require no less.” Of course, our oath and our office require us to vindicate all constitutional rights. But the need for judicial review is at its most urgent in cases like these. “For here, politicians’ incentives conflict with voters’ interests, leaving citizens without any political remedy for their constitutional harms.” Those harms arise because politicians want to stay in office. No one can look to them for effective relief.


The majority disagrees, concluding its opinion with a paean to congressional bills limiting partisan gerrymanders. “Dozens of [those] bills have been introduced,” the majority says. What all these bills have in common is that they are not laws. The politicians who benefit from partisan gerrymandering are unlikely to change partisan gerrymandering. And because those politicians maintain themselves in office through partisan gerrymandering, the chances for legislative reform are slight.

No worries, the majority says; it has another idea. The majority notes that voters themselves have recently approved ballot initiatives to put power over districting in the hands of independent commissions or other non-partisan actors. Fewer than half the States offer voters an opportunity to put initiatives to direct vote; in all the rest (including North Carolina and Maryland), voters are dependent on legislators to make electoral changes (which for all the reasons already given, they are unlikely to do). And even when voters have a mechanism they can work themselves, legislators often fight their efforts tooth and nail. . . .

The majority’s most perplexing “solution” is to look to state courts. What do those courts know that this Court does not? If they can develop and apply neutral and manageable standards to identify unconstitutional gerrymanders, why couldn’t we?

We could have, and we should have. The gerrymanders here—and they are typical of many—violated the constitutional rights of many hundreds of thousands of American citizens. Those voters (Republicans in the one case, Democrats in the other) did not have an equal opportunity to participate in the political process. Their votes counted for far less than they should have because of their partisan affiliation. When faced with such constitutional wrongs, courts must intervene: “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” Marbury v. Madison. That is what the courts below did. Their decisions are worth a read. They (and others that have recently remedied similar violations) are detailed, thorough, painstaking. They evaluated with immense care the factual evidence and legal arguments the parties presented. They used neutral and the majority, see ante, at 34, this manageable and strict standards. They had not a shred of politics about them.

That is not to deny, of course, that these cases have great political consequence. They do. Among the amicus briefs here is one from a bipartisan group of current and former Members of the House of Representatives. They describe all the ways partisan gerrymandering harms our political system—what they call “a cascade of negative results.” These artificially drawn districts shift influence from swing voters to party-base voters who participate in primaries; make bipartisanship and pragmatic compromise politically difficult or impossible; and drive voters away from an ever more dysfunctional political process. Last year, we heard much the same from current and former state legislators. In their view, partisan gerrymandering has “sounded the death-knell of bipartisanship,” creating a legislative environment that is “toxic” and “tribal.” Gerrymandering, in short, helps create the polarized political system so many Americans loathe.

And gerrymandering is, as so many Justices have emphasized before, anti-democratic in the most profound sense. And that means, as Alexander Hamilton once said, “that the people should choose whom they please to govern them.”

. . . .Of all times to abandon the Court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one. The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the Court’s role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections. With respect but deep sadness, I dissent.