WASHINGTON – Two issues that could determine the distribution of political power for the next decade await resolution on the Supreme Court’s final day of decisions before a long summer break.
Chief Justice John Roberts could well be the author of decisions on both politically charged topics Thursday, whether to allow a citizenship question on the 2020 census and place limits on drawing electoral districts for partisan gain. The census results and the rules by which political districts will be redrawn following the next population count help determine how districts are drawn and where.
Roberts has repeatedly said he doesn’t want the public to view the court as just another political entity, even now that it has five conservatives appointed by Republican presidents and four liberals appointed by Democrats. Yet decisions in these cases could amplify criticism of the court.
The justices are set to take the bench at 10 a.m. EDT, with five cases in all still unresolved. Congressional redistricting is at issue in two cases, from Maryland and North Carolina. The others include control of a large portion of eastern Oklahoma that once belonged to Indian tribes and the rights of unconscious, suspected drunken drivers.
Roberts is the only justice who has yet to write an opinion in cases argued in March and April, when the court heard the redistricting and census cases, respectively. Justices customarily write at least one opinion every month that cases are argued. In addition, the chief justice often, but not always, takes on the burden of deciding the most difficult issues facing the court.
That he also is the justice closest to the center of the court only magnifies Roberts’ role in the outcome of cases with the potential to alter political power across the United States.
The census case involves an attempt by the Trump administration to ask everyone about their citizenship status in the 2020 census. The last time the question was broadly asked was in 1950.
The administration argues it needs the data to improve enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, but the census’ own experts have said that including the question would make the count less accurate. The Justice Department had never previously sought a citizenship question in the 54-year history of the landmark voting rights law.
Democratic-led states and cities, and civil rights groups challenging the citizenship case, have argued that the question would discourage immigrants from participating in the census, taking power away from cities and other places with large immigrant populations and reward less populated rural areas.
When the case was argued in April, it appeared that the conservative justices were poised to allow the question to be asked.
But the issue has become even more controversial in recent weeks with the public release of evidence found on the computer files of a now-dead Republican redistricting consultant. The question’s opponents say the evidence shows the citizenship question is part of a broader plan to increase Republican power.
The administration has said the new allegations lack merit, but federal judges in New York and Maryland have said the matter deserves more investigation
The high court is reviewing two court decisions in which federal judges found that Republicans in North Carolina and Democrats in Maryland went too far in drawing congressional districts to benefit their party at the expense of the other party’s voters.
The Supreme Court has never invalidated districts on partisan grounds, but the court has kept the door open to these claims. The court has struck down districts predominantly based on race.
North Carolina Republicans want the justices to rule out federal lawsuits making claims of partisan gerrymandering. The justices also could impose limits on the practice for the first time. It was not clear at arguments in March that any conservative justice was prepared to join the liberals to limit partisan line-drawing, which can result when one party controls the state legislature and the governor’s office.