In a 5-4 decision Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court said that it, and all federal courts, aren’t given the constitutional power to stop political gerrymandering.
And so it comes to the Utah Legislature, controlled by Republicans, whether political partisanship plays a role in the 2021 redistricting of U.S. House seats and legislative districts.
In short, will Prop 4 – which effectively outlaws partisan gerrymandering in redistricting – stand as written or fall?
This is, and will be in the 2020 Legislature, one of the most significant political questions Utah lawmakers will face in generations.
And it will tax the fairness of Republican lawmakers to their hilt.
The question is simple.
The reality complex.
The high court, in a majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, said that the U.S. Constitution doesn’t prescribe that the federal courts have any say in gerrymandering – the long-held practice of state legislatures drawing political district lines to favor one party over another.
Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the minority, said she “sadly” disagrees, and used strong language in condemning the majority’s refusal to outlaw partisan gerrymandering.
The ruling has a direct effect on what Utah legislators may do with Prop 4, which barely passed last November, 50.34 percent to 49.66 percent.
Roberts said in his majority opinion that local state legislatures can still outlaw partisan gerrymandering, as could Congress. But that the issue shouldn’t be decided on a U.S. constitutional basis.
Republicans in the Utah Legislature have already shown that citizen initiative petitions are not sacred, and can be changed, even repealed.
In a December special session, legislators substantially changed the medical marijuana petition passed by voters just weeks before.
And in the 2019 general session, legislators changed the full Medicaid expansion, also passed by voters in November, restricting access authorized by Obamacare.
GOP legislative leaders have criticized Prop 4, saying it restricts the Legislature’s state constitutional authority in redrawing U.S House and legislative district lines after every 10-year Census.
Prop 4 does a number of things. But at its heart sets up an independent redistricting commission, whose recommendations can be changed by the Legislature. But it is tightly written, and for lawmakers to change the recommendation – which prohibits partisan voting patterns to be considered – the Legislature would have to show how their alternative better fits with Prop 4 guidelines.
In short, Prop 4 would make it very difficult politically for a partisan redistricting to be upheld in court.
And that is what GOP leaders hate – any restraints on how they would draw their own legislative district lines, and those of the U.S. House.
While most legislators won’t admit it, they relish their powers to draw their own district lines – in essence, pick their own voters.
Utah historically has not been as blatant as some other state legislatures in this practice.
In fact, usually, many Democratic state legislators here have voted for the legislative redistricting action, overseen by the majority Republicans.
Instead, it’s on the U.S. House redistricting where Utah Republican lawmakers have been the most unfair – drawing lines that harmed Democratic voting blocs the most.
Prop 4, which requires new districts to be drawn along city and county boundaries, where possible, would likely put all of Salt Lake City – very Democratic – into a Salt Lake County-centric U.S. House seat, probably ensuring at least one Democratic House member from Utah, a very red state.
Boiled down, that is what is at stake in Prop 4. And what GOP leaders in Utah don’t like about it.
Currently, most Salt Lake City voters are in the 2nd District, held by Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah.
Stewart has been one of the most partisan Republicans in the U.S. House – strongly backing GOP President Donald Trump at every turn.
His Salt Lake City constituents dislike him. He lost the city portion of his district by 70 percent of the vote in the last election. But he won the Davis County portion (and other very Republican areas) by huge majorities, and so easily wins re-election every two years.
Last year he won the final election, 56.1 percent to his Democratic opponent’s 38.9 percent – not even close.
Prop 4 is good government, plain and simple.
Partisan gerrymandering is wrong, whether the conservatives on the high court believe it or not.
Prop 4 should stand as it.
But I’m afraid Republicans in the Legislature won’t let that happen.
So, the question is, how badly will they cut it up?
And will one of the most insidious elements of our democracy – partisan, institutional unfairness – continue in Utah?