The Supreme Court was told yesterday that courts should keep out of the "political quagmire" of drawing legislative district lines in an Indiana reapportionment case that could have far-reaching implications for the Republican Party's hope to become the nation's majority party.
If the high court upholds a lower-court ruling that Indiana legislative districts drawn in 1981 by the Republican-controlled legislature are unconstitutional, it will open a new chapter of judicial activism that national Republicans hope will work to their advantage.
The involvement would be the judiciary's most substantial in the political process since the Supreme Court's "one-man, one-vote" rulings more than 20 years ago.
Because of its potential enormous impact, Davis v. Bandemer has created strange political bedfellows, with the national Republican Party supporting Indiana Democrats while the California Democratic congressional delegation has filed a "friend of the court" brief on behalf of Indiana Republicans.
Indiana Democrats challenged the redistricting plan, saying it violates the Constitution's guarantee of equal representation. They were upheld in 1983 by a three-judge federal court, and Indiana Republicans appealed to the Supreme Court.
"You have a map of the state that places a virtually insuperable handicap on a category of citizens -- those aligned with the Democratic Party," Theodore R. Boehm, an Indianapolis lawyer representing Indiana Democrats, told the high court. "There is nothing that limits equal doctrine to race. Other target groups can require its protection." Although Indiana Democrats won almost 52 percent of the statewide vote in 1982, he said, they gained only 43 of the 100 state House seats.
"The people have the right to have redistricting done by their elected representatives in the legislature," William M. Evans, attorney for the Indiana Republicans, responded. "The key considerations are whether the one-man, one-vote principle and the protection of blacks are observed, and this plan does that. Who in this room can say how many Republicans and how many Democrats should serve in the Indiana legislature?"
The court is expected to rule by July, and the justices gave little indication in their questioning of how they may vote. Justice William J. Brennan Jr. asked if the court might be inviting an enormous amount of work for the judiciary if it says gerrymandering, or drawing of political lines for partisan advantage, is unconstitutional.
The national Republican Party is supporting the Indiana Democrats because it wants judicial intervention in drawing state legislative and congressional districts. It sees this as the key to controlling the U.S. House in 1990.
Democrats control both legislative houses in 28 states and Republicans in 11. If the Supreme Court rejects the GOP appeal, the Republicans plan to challenge legislative and congressional districting in other states, possibly including California, Texas, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Massachusetts and Tennessee.
In California in 1981, the late Democratic congressman Philip Burton drew a congressional map creating new, predominantly Democratic districts, concentrated Republican voters into fewer districts and enabled Democrats to gain six House seats in 1982. Last year, California Republicans complained that, although they won 49.4 percent of the statewide congressional vote to the Democrats' 48.3 percent, the GOP gained only 40 percent of the House seats, 18, to the Democrats' 27.