A ruling by a federal judge to redraw political districts in Utah’s San Juan County may not be a harbinger of rulings to come in cases of suspected gerrymandering currently under federal judicial review, but it certainly validates concerns that manipulation of voting precincts has occurred to the detriment of voters and a fair electoral process.
U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby ordered San Juan County to redraw voting boundaries to give equal voice in local political races to Native Americans who make up more than half of the county’s population. The judge rejected voting districts proposed by the county on grounds they were “racially gerrymandered.” In the 1993 case Shaw v. Reno, the Supreme Court wrote that “racial classifications of any sort pose the risk of lasting harm to our society,” the court held that any gerrymandering along racial lines was subject to strict scrutiny — the most probing level of judicial review.
In San Juan County, Shelby appointed an independent expert to redraw the districts and held public hearings. As a result, Navajo residents in the county will have a majority in two of three county commission districts and in three of five school districts. The county has promised to appeal the ruling, which stems from a lawsuit filed in 2012.
On the national level, the U.S. Supreme Court is deliberating on cases involving evidence of gerrymandering in Wisconsin and Maryland. The Wisconsin case revolves around claims that congressional districts were drawn in favor of GOP interests, while the Maryland case involves boundaries created under Democratic influence. The court may have merged the cases to avoid the appearance of a partisan ruling.
In 2004, however, in the case Vieth v. Jubelirer, the court held that there was no judicial recourse for politically motivated gerrymandering. Yet, a much-discussed concurring opinion penned by the Supreme Court’s swing vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy, left open the possibility that the court might permit the judiciability of political gerrymandering cases in the future. Kennedy wrote: “I would not foreclose all possibility of judicial relief if some limited and precise rationale were found to correct an established violation of the Constitution in some redistricting cases.”
Whether judiciable or not, gerrymandering is a blatant assault on the notion of fair representation in the electoral process. The San Juan County case is a particularly stark example. Navajo leaders have complained for decades that district boundaries have been rigged to guarantee white majorities in two of three commission districts. Shelby’s ruling goes to the issue of racially motivated gerrymandering, while the cases before the Supreme Court involve voting district manipulation based on serving political interests. Should the high court rule in a way that curtails politically motivated gerrymandering, it would bring significant upheaval in many parts of the country where district maps resemble an inkblot test.
Utah’s current congressional district boundaries fall somewhat into that category. After the 2010 census, the Legislature embarked upon a redistricting process that targeted Salt Lake County, which has a much higher percentage of Democrats than other counties. As a result, all four members of Utah’s congressional delegation have a portion of their districts in one of the state’s 29 counties, which common sense would suggest is a result of something other than happenstance. Districts should be created to encompass a commonality of interests among citizens, not to consolidate the influence of the majority party.
The exercise of drawing up new boundaries in San Juan County will be a healthy expression of necessary reform. Depending on how the Supreme Court rules in the Wisconsin and Maryland cases, the same kind of reform may have to be put in place even before the 2020 census requires new redistricting. The interests of fairness and equal representation in the democratic process demand that gerrymandering is called out for what it is — the brazen use of political power for the sole purpose of preserving that power.