The United States Supreme Court hears arguments today on what could be one of the most far-reaching cases dealing with American politics in this century. It involves the Indiana House of Representatives; but the impact could eventually reach into every state legislature and into Congress.
At stake is grassroots political power, and the ancient American practice of ``gerrymandering.'' Politicians of both parties are notorious for drawing political boundary lines in ways that help their own candidates. Those lines must be redrawn after every 10-year census.
In Indiana, the lines are presently drawn to help Republicans. In California, they are drawn to help Democrats. The party in power, with just the squiggle of a few lines on a map, can change the outcome of dozens of elections.
The Indiana case could set off a string of political dominoes from coast to coast. It could speed the day when Republicans wield far more power in the Sunbelt, and it could help put more Democrats into office in some Midwestern states.
In Washington, the case is being watched with keen interest because it could potentially give Republicans as many as 20 or 30 more seats in Congress.
The Indiana case involves a challenge by Democrats to the state's 1981 redistricting. A three-judge federal court has already ruled that when the Republican-dominated Indiana legislature drew new district lines for its own elections, it violated the 14th Amendment by discriminating against Democrats.
The outcome of the 1982 elections seemed to support such a conclusion. Democrats got 52 percent of the vote for the Indiana legislature, but only 43 percent of the seats.
The case has strained relations in both major political parties and has created some of the strangest political bedfellows of all time.
For example, the Republican National Committee (RNC) is supporting Indiana Democrats. Joining the RNC in the case are the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Common Cause, and the American Civil Liberties Union.
On the other side, defending the Indiana Republicans, is the California Democatic Party.
The California Democrats' position is understandable. They run the California legislature. And they draw the lines in California for the state's congressional seats.
In 1984, that paid off. Republicans running for Congress got 4.4 million votes in California in 1984, while Democrats got 4.3 million. But Democrats walked away with 60 percent of the US House seats in the state.
E. Mark Braden, chief counsel for the RNC, says Indiana is the most important case for voting rights since 1962, when the Supreme Court handed down its famous ``one man, one vote'' decision.
With highly-sophisticated computers, says Mr. Braden, politicians today can divide states into numerically equal, but terribly unfair districts, and perpetuate themselves in power ``almost indefinitely.''
American elections shouldn't be dependent on ``clever line drawers,'' he says.
Braden, demonstrating the power of such manipulation, shows how in the Indianapolis area, redrawing the lines can tilt the legislative split 3 Democrats and 12 Republicans to 11 Democrats and 4 Republicans.
As for California: ``I have no doubt that in California as well, we could take the same 1984 vote and come up with a flipflop that gave Republicans 60 percent of the seats instead of the Democrats.''
Indiana Republicans, however, see it very differently. State party chairman Gordon K. Durnil complains that the courts are meddling where they don't belong.
He observes that the three-member federal court split 2-to-1 in the case, with the two Democratic members of the court voting for Indiana Democrats, and the Republican member voting with the Indiana Republicans.
It's a political question that should be solved in the political arena, he argues. ``There's always going to be partisanship,'' he observes.
Common Cause, one of those seeking judicial action, concedes in its brief to the court that there are limits to judicial interference. However, gerrymandering today has gone so far that it presents a ``grave danger to the very legitimacy of our political process.''
The justices will have to balance that argument against the words of an earlier judge, Felix Frankfurter, who in a similar case in 1946 wrote:
``Courts ought not to enter this political thicket.''