Supreme Court tightens 'one-man, one-vote' standard

Dozens - perhaps hundreds - of elective districts throughout the United States face an uncertain future. In particular jeopardy is the gerrymander, the process by which political boundary lines are drawn for partisan advantages by those in power.

This is the between-the-lines message in the US Supreme Court's June 22 ruling striking down New Jersey's congressional districting.

As in previous rulings, the 5-to-4 decision stopped short of branding gerrymandering itself unconstitutional. But they did strike what could be a telling blow against the process by insisting that strict ''one-man, one-vote'' standards be met.

The ruling, which was a major victory for New Jersey Republicans, will force that state's Democratic-controlled Legislature to carve out 14 new congressional districts containing approximately the same number of people.

The impact, however, could be widespread, perhaps prodding judges in lower federal and state courts to take harder, and more critical, looks at congressional and state legislative districting elsewhere.

Still pending, before various tribunals and judges from Mississippi to Idaho, are more than a dozen suits challenging the current districting of states. Besides expediting this litigation, the New Jersey decision could spark a wave of new suits seeking to force stricter compliance with ''one-man, one-vote'' standards.

In his opinion for the majority, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. made it clear that the high court expects those drawing districts to come as close as possible to population equality.

At the same time, he said the court recognizes there are other factors that might justify certain deviations from absolute equality. He held that ''any number of consistently applied legislative policies might justify some variance, including making districts compact, respecting municipal boundaries, preserving the cores of prior districts, and avoiding contests between incumbent representatives.''

The dissenting justices argued that the new standard could actually lead to more gerrymandering, not less. Justice Byron R. White said that the opinion was an ''unreasonable insistence on an unattainable perfection,'' and that it would ensure ''extensive intrusion of the judiciary into legislative business.''

The New Jersey redistricting, signed into law in January 1981 by then Democratic Gov. Brendan T. Byrne shortly before leaving office, had a 3,674 population deviation between the state's largest and smallest district.

In defending the measure, Democratic state officials argued that the maximum population deviation between the districts was only .698 percent and that the discrepancies were necessary in order to prevent fragmentation of black voters.

''Adopting any standard, other than population equality, using the best census data available, would subtly erode the Constitution's ideal of equal representation,'' Justice Brennan asserted.

The Supreme Court majority held that it is the responsibility of those doing redistricting to clarify, at the time, the reasons why the plan fails to come as close as possible to achieving the one-man, one-vote ideal.

The New Jersey case now goes back to a three-judge federal appeals court in Newark. They overturned the districting 15 months ago, but their order was later set aside temporarily by Justice Brennan so that last November's congressional election could go forward.

Now it will be up to the appellate judges to set a deadline for approval of a new districting to be in place in time for the 1984 election.

While declining to speculate how far reaching the Supreme Court decision might be in curbing gerrymandering, those close to the scene suggest it could make it a lot harder for lawmakers to use redistricting to partisan advantage.

Regardless of what impact this decision might have on pending litigation in other states, the court ''has clarified how future redistricting plans will be judged,'' says Ellen Block, the associate general counsel for Common Cause.

She notes that in its ruling, the Supreme Court justices again shied away from tackling directly the question of gerrymandering, which over the years has resulted in hundreds of irregularly shaped political districts, especially crafted for the advantage of those in charge of the project.

At least 16 congressional and legislative districting challenges, involving alleged abridgement of ''one-man, one-vote'' standards, are pending, according to Candace Romig of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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