The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sent Wisconsin's partisan gerrymandering case back to the federal District Court, giving plaintiffs another opportunity to show Democratic voters in the state have been discriminated against based on their political party affiliation because of how voting districts were drawn by Republicans.
In the 7-2 opinion, a majority of the justices affirmed they were not dismissing the plaintiff's claims outright and said that the legality of partisan gerrymandering, and whether the high court has the authority to weigh in on it, is "an unsettled kind of claim this Court has not agreed upon, the contours and justiciability of which are unresolved," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts.
The justices said they were sending Gill v. Whitford back to the lower federal court so "the plaintiffs may have an opportunity to prove concrete and particularized injuries using evidence — unlike the bulk of the evidence presented thus far — that would tend to demonstrate a burden on their individual votes."
The plaintiffs in the case are 12 Democratic Wisconsin voters who filed suit against the state, arguing that legislative maps drawn by Republicans in 2011 were unconstitutional. The lead plaintiff is Bill Whitford, a retired University of Wisconsin Law School professor.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard the case in October 2017, following a 2016 ruling from a federal three-judge panel in Wisconsin. The case will now be heard again by a federal court in Wisconsin.
In 2016, the federal three-judge panel in Wisconsin threw out the map and had ordered the state to draw new ones. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling now means that the 2011 maps will stand in this year's election.
In that ruling, the federal District Court also said there should be a better standard and test to measure other maps. Plaintiffs in the case put forth several social science methods for measuring the political bias of district maps.
The case is at the intersection of several longstanding legal questions about whether a federal court can opine on a state’s maps and whether there is an acceptable tool for deeming gerrymandering discriminatory. The U.S. Supreme Court said Monday that the plaintiffs did not convince them of that question but said they want to hear more specific evidence about how particular groups of voters in specific districts are being discriminated against.
Amy Hasenberg, Governor Walker's spokeswoman, praised the decision.
"The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the State of Wisconsin. This allows the Governor and Legislature to continue focusing on issues that move Wisconsin forward," she said in a statement.
Paul Smith, an attorney for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, which represented the plaintiffs, affirmed that they will continue to work to roll back the legislative maps.
“This case is very much still alive. We now have the opportunity to demonstrate the real and concrete harms that result from partisan gerrymandering in the lower court, the same court that struck down the Wisconsin mapping scheme to begin with,” said Smith, who argued the case before the court in October.
“Extreme partisan gerrymandering is increasingly getting worse — damaging our democracy and eroding voters’ confidence in our system. We will continue advancing efforts, in this case and others as well as through the political process, to end this practice and safeguard every citizen’s fundamental right to vote and have it count.”