The Supreme Court in March heard arguments in similar cases from North Carolina, where judges found that Republicans had manipulated congressional maps to their advantage, and from Maryland, where Democratic lawmakers redrew a district that resulted in a loss for a longtime Republican congressman.
While the Supreme Court regularly examines redistricting plans for signs of racial gerrymandering, it has never found a state’s plan so infected with partisan politics that it violates the rights of voters. The decision in the North Carolina and Maryland cases are expected before the end of June.
With the decisions from Ohio and Michigan, federal courts in five states have struck down maps as partisan gerrymanders. The courts in the Ohio and Michigan decisions ordered the states to come up with new maps that could be used in the 2020 elections.
But lawyers for the states argued that would be foolhardy until the Supreme Court has ruled. Lawyers for Ohio told the court that the legislature there should not have to “waste its time on a difficult legislative activity likely to prove entirely unnecessary.”
Even if the court’s decision is that federal courts have a role in monitoring partisan gerrymandering, Ohio argued in its request to the court, that “will require the district court to return to the drawing board on the question of liability, make new findings as necessary, and apply what this court declares to be the law to this case in the first instance.”
Michigan sounded a similar theme. “Time and again, this court has granted stays when other district courts have invoked partisan gerrymandering to force legislatures to enact new maps,” wrote lawyers for the Michigan Senate. “Michigan, no less than Wisconsin or North Carolina, deserves to avoid judicially inflicted political upheaval based on a theory this court has repeatedly declined to adopt.”
Often, lower courts will hesitate while the Supreme Court is considering an issue. But the unanimous panel that found that some of Michigan’s legislative and congressional maps were unconstitutional seemed anxious to send a message to the high court.
“Judges — and justices — must act in accordance with their obligation to vindicate the constitutional rights of those harmed by partisan gerrymandering,” Judge Eric L. Clay of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit wrote in the Michigan case.
The Ohio court took a similar approach in its decision.
“We join the other federal courts that have held partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional and developed substantially similar standards for adjudicating such claims,” the panel said in its unanimous ruling.