The Supreme Court used Pennsylvania's congressional map Wednesday to consider whether the redrawing of election districts has become too political — a case that could affect voters nationwide.
At issue is a 19-district map, was drawn last year by the Republican-controlled state Legislature, that forced three Democratic lawmakers out of office. The high court debated whether drawing districts to favor one party over another can be constitutional or a political matter best left for states.
A handful of other states, including Texas and Florida, also are grappling with the fairness of such a congressional gerrymandering system.
"How unfair is unfair?" asked Justice Antonin Scalia.
"If a party is getting two-thirds of the seats with less than half of the vote, I submit that's unfair," answered Paul M. Smith, who argued the case on behalf of a group of Democrats.
Republicans hold 12 of Pennsylvania's 19 congressional seats, but Democrats have a 445,000 statewide voter edge over Republicans. Previously, the Republicans had 11 seats to the Democrats' 10. Because of the state's slower-than-average population growth, Pennsylvania lost two of its 21 seats in Congress after the 2000 census.
The Supreme Court has made it almost impossible to win a claim that partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional, although justices left the door open to such claims in a splintered 1986 ruling.
High stakes for politics
The case is important because of the high stakes involved in boundary-drawing for political parties. States must redraw boundaries after every census to reflect population shifts, and legislatures and political parties have begun using sophisticated computer analyses to ferret out the best places to pick up more seats.
If the court makes it easier to challenge maps, some states could be forced to redraw their districts, which could threaten Republican control of Congress.
The case "puts the Supreme Court in a terrible bind," said Jonathan Turley, a constitution law professor at George Washington University. "The court has historically avoided political questions and respected the public to render its own judgment on the propriety of political maneuvers or tactics."
Pennsylvania Deputy Attorney General J. Bart DeLone, defending the Republican map, shrugged off whether politics played a part in drawing the lines.
"There's nothing wrong with it," DeLone told the court. "I think you can assume there was a political motivation. And frankly, we don't have a problem with that. The question is whether or not [Democrats] have been shut out of the process."
Justice John Paul Stevens criticized Republicans for failing to justify the political gerrymandering, which the Democrats charge violates the "one-person, one-vote" requirement protected in the Constitution.
"When you have a very strangely shaped district, the burden is on you to point out one neutral justification for it," Steven said. "But you can't point to anything."
The case is Vieth v. Jubelirer, 02-1580.