Gerrymandering ruling could shape Georgia’s power dynamic for years

“The stakes in 2020 were already high, but they just got higher.”

The Supreme Court said Thursday that partisan redistricting cases fall “beyond the reach” of federal courts, a ruling that will have major implications for the balance of power in Georgia for years to come.

In a 5-4 decision, the court's conservative majority wrote that voters and elected officials are the best referees for state electoral maps - not federal judges.

“Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.

The decision will reverberate as Georgia lawmakers prepare to redraw the state’s legislative and congressional districts after the 2020 census.

It could further embolden legislators to draw political maps for massive partisan gain. But it also doesn’t prevent plaintiffs from challenging district boundaries based on race or ethnicity.

One thing it clearly does is punctuate the importance of next year’s elections, which will determine who controls the statehouse and thus draws the new district lines in 2021.

"The stakes in 2020 were already high, but they just got higher," said state House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, D-Luthersville. "The next election isn't just the next election, it's the next five elections."

Republicans currently control every statewide office and both chambers of the General Assembly. If that power dynamic holds after next year’s elections, the GOP majority can draw district boundaries that further advantage the party. Democrats could do the same if they flip control of the Legislature.

‘Spurious claims’

The justices rejected legal challenges to GOP-drawn congressional boundaries in North Carolina, as well as a Democratic district in Maryland.

Gerrymandering is common across both political parties. In Georgia, Democrats moved to shore up their power when they controlled the Legislature in 2001. Republicans did the same a decade later, after they wrested control of the majority.

Bryan Tyson, a Republican attorney who was involved in the party’s redistricting effort in 2011, said the Supreme Court’s decision provides “some clear direction about what the legal standards are for redistricting.”

"I'm not sure that it's going to lead to a sea change in terms of how we draw plans,” Tyson said. “But I think it does just kind of close off and give certainty to map drawers that (federal lawsuits for partisan gerrymandering) are not something they need to be concerned about when drawing plans.”

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston cheered the court's decision. The Blue Ridge Republican said it ensures "you cannot misuse the courts to win political fights you lost at the ballot box."

“Democrats drafted district lines for more than a century in Georgia,” he said. “It was only after they lost majorities in the Legislature that they started making spurious claims of gerrymandering."

The state’s top Democrats promptly expressed their dismay.

"Republicans have once again shown their hand: They will always choose power over our democracy, and now the highest court in the land won't stop them," said state Sen. Nikema Williams, the chairwoman of the state Democratic Party.

Pending challenge

The Supreme Court’s ruling  does not prevent the critics of electoral maps from suing in state courts, opponents said. Nor does it bar states from passing legislation to create nonpartisan commissions to redraw district lines.

Resolutions to amend Georgia’s Constitution to create such independent bodies were introduced in both chambers of the General Assembly earlier this year but did not advance.

The high court’s decision doesn’t impact legal challenges to electoral maps based on the violation of the “one person, one vote” principle or racial discrimination under the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The latter is the avenue the National Redistricting Foundation, a group affiliated with former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, is using to contest Georgia’s current congressional districts.

The suit alleges that Georgia legislators drew the state's 14 congressional districts so that black voters were dispersed to decrease their combined political strength.

GOP leaders have characterized the suit as a power grab by the Democratic Party.

2020 pressure 

One factor made clear by the new ruling was the added pressure on Georgia Democrats leading up to the 2020 elections.

Changing demographics and disdain for President Donald Trump helped the party gain ground last year in Atlanta’s northern suburbs. The party flipped a Republican-held congressional district and a dozen legislative districts.

And heading into 2020, Democrats sense an opportunity to claim another suburban congressional seat and turn the tables on nearly two decades of Republican rule in the Legislature.

The party is targeting a sweep of Georgia House districts, mostly in the suburbs, with the hope that it can overcome its 30-seat deficit in the chamber.

The Senate, where Republicans enjoy a 35-21 edge, is in firmer GOP control.

Without control of at least one chamber of the Legislature, University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock said, Democrats could end up “observers rather than participants when it comes to redistricting.”

The Associated Press and staff writers Mark Niesse and Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.