Disputed congressional maps in North Carolina and Maryland can't be declared unconstitutional for political reasons, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday, a decision that could have a sweeping effect for states like Ohio and Michigan where officials remain at odds over whether updated district designs are too partisan.
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The 5-4 opinion largely now leaves it up to the states to determine the legality of new electoral districts and whether they predominately benefit one political party over the other.
The ruling could also have significant ramifications for whether Republican or Democratic lawmakers control statehouses and congressional seats across the country.
"Partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. "We have no commission to allocate political power and influence in the absence of a constitutional directive or legal standards to guide us in the exercise of such authority."
While the bulk of the justices believe the federal courts cannot legally determine partisan gerrymandering, the minority said the "practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government."
"Part of the Court’s role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections," Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the dissenting opinion.
Despite the split, the Supreme Court was right to "stay its hand, to exercise restraint, and to call on elected officials" to address the issue, rather than judges, according to Notre Dame Law School professor Richard Garnett.
The court heard two separate cases on the matter. One was from opponents of a North Carolina map established in 2011 that critics say predominately benefited Republicans, who now control 10 of the 13 seats in the state.
The other centered on Maryland's restricting effort in 2011 that opponents say allowed Democrats to capture a congressional seat in a Republican-dominant district.
The next redistricting effort, which occurs every 10 years, is expected to happen after the 2020 census.