updated 4/28/2004 1:58:48 PM ET 2004-04-28T17:58:48

The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld Pennsylvania’s newly drawn congressional boundaries, while leaving a narrow opening for future challenges claiming party politics overly influenced election maps.

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More broadly than Pennsylvania, the ruling draws a new roadmap for other legal fights over politics in boundary drawing, which has grown more contentious. One justice, John Paul Stevens, disagreed with the decision and complained from the bench about overtly political legislatures.

The court affirmed on a 5-4 vote boundaries drawn by the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Legislature, rejecting a challenge from state Democrats.

Four court conservatives would have gone even further, by blocking legal attacks on gerrymandering, the practice of drawing voting districts to favor a political party.

Those justices — Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas — wanted to overrule part of a 1986 high court ruling that permitted challenges. A fifth moderate conservative, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, disagreed, as did four liberal justices.

Kennedy voted with the conservatives in upholding Pennsylvania’s new map.

New boundaries every 10 years
States must redraw boundaries every 10 years to reflect population shifts. Pennsylvania lost two congressional districts after the 2000 census and Democrats and Republicans battled extensively over a new 19-district map.

Republicans hold 12 of Pennsylvania’s 19 House seats, even though there are more Democrats in the state. When the state had 21 seats, Republicans held an 11-10 advantage.

Democrats had charged that political gerrymandering violates the “one-person, one-vote” principle protected in the Constitution.

While the Supreme Court has made it almost impossible to win a claim that partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional, justices left the door open to such claims in the splintered 1986 ruling at issue Wednesday.

Scalia, writing the court’s main decision, said that courts have wrangled for 18 years over the subject “with virtually nothing to show for it ... we must conclude that political gerrymandering claims are nonjusticiable and that (the ruling) was wrongly decided.”

Kennedy, in his separate opinion, said that “a decision ordering 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.” He added, however, that courts must be open to the possibility of unconstitutional line-drawing, including claims of First Amendment violations.

Justices Stevens, David H. Souter and Stephen Breyer each wrote their own opinions as well, expressing reservations about closing courts to some fights over redistricting. Stevens said that the problem is not that court rulings on standards have been confusing, but that “a failure of judicial will to condemn even the most blatant violations of a state legislature’s fundamental duty to govern impartially.”

Bad news for Texas Democrats
Loyola Law School election expert Richard Hasen said the ruling is bad news for Democrats in Texas and others who want to pursue political gerrymandering cases.

“It was already extremely difficult. Now it is even more difficult, because you have four justices saying the door is completely closed,” he said.

Several appeals over new Texas boundaries are pending now at the Supreme Court.

Scalia said that politics in boundary-drawing dates back to the beginning of the 18th century in Pennsylvania, in a dispute over the political power of the city of Philadelphia.

“It was generally conceded that each party would attempt to gain power which was not proportionate to its numerical strength,” Scalia wrote.

The case is Vieth v. Jubelirer, 02-1580.

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