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Utah Supreme Court Considers the Issue of Gerrymandered Maps

While the U.S. Supreme Court thinks that even the most egregious partisan (as opposed to racial) gerrymandering is hunky dory, some of the state Supreme Courts are ruling that it violates the state constitution. A recent battle is in Utah, of all places. On Tuesday, Utah's highest court heard a case about the latest state congressional map. This map divides up Salt Lake County, which is heavily Democratic, and parcels its voters out among four congressional districts. This ensures that the congressional delegation is 0D, 4R instead of 1D, 3R.

The backstory here is of note. In 2018, the voters passed a ballot measure banning gerrymandering. However, this initiative was just a law, not an amendment to the state Constitution. So what did the legislature do? It simply repealed the law and went to work on a gerrymandered map. Tuesday's hearing was about whether the courts have a role in deciding what is a proper map or if that is simply a job for the political branches. It is not known when a ruling might be made.

The U.S. Supreme Court considered exactly the same question in 2019 and punted it back to the legislatures. However, Utah's constitution offers voting-rights advocates a stronger case. Specifically, the Utah constitution says that all political power resides with the people. This raises the issue of whether the legislature has the power to repeal a law the people passed by initiative. If the Court rules that the legislature doesn't have that power, then the law the people passed will remain in force and the legislature will have to draw a new map. If it draws a heavily gerrymandered map, Democrats will sue, claiming that the map violates state law.

The case could have national implications since similar cases are percolating up in other states. While no state is bound by decisions in other states, if a substantial number of state Supreme Courts have ruled that their state Constitutions and laws ban gerrymandering, that could influence judges in other states that have similar provisions in their Constitutions and laws. In fact, courts in Alaska, Maryland, New Mexico, and New York have already ruled that partisan gerrymanders are unconstitutional. So have courts in Ohio and North Carolina. In Ohio, the legislature just ignored the courts. In North Carolina, a newly elected (Republican-majority) Supreme Court is about to throw the old ruling in the waste basket and make a new ruling. (V)

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