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UPDATE 2-U.S. top court takes up politically charged electoral map disputes

Updated: 05-01-2019 02:07 IST
Accusations that state legislators drew electoral maps for partisan advantage in violation of the U.S. Constitution will once again come before the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed on Friday to decide cases from North Carolina and Maryland that could have enduring political consequences nationwide.

The high court has struggled to resolve the legality of the practice called partisan gerrymandering in which boundaries of legislative districts are delineated with the aim of tightening one party's grip on power.

The justices in June 2018 failed to issue definitive rulings in cases from Wisconsin and Maryland that election reformers had hoped would prompt the high court to impose limits on partisan gerrymandering.

The court will hear oral arguments in both cases in March, with rulings due by the end of June.

In the North Carolina case being taken up by the justices, Democratic voters accused North Carolina's Republican-led legislature of drawing U.S. House of Representatives districts in a way that disadvantaged Democratic candidates in violation of the constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law. A lower court sided with the Democratic voters.

In the Maryland case, Republican voters accused Democratic legislators of violating their constitutional free speech rights by redrawing boundaries of one particular U.S. House district to hinder Republican chances of winning. The Supreme Court in June sidestepped a ruling on the merits of the case and a three-judge panel threw out the district in November.

Gerrymandering is a practice dating back two centuries in the United States. While the Supreme Court has ruled against gerrymandering intended to harm the electoral clout of racial minorities, it has never curbed gerrymandering carried out purely for partisan advantage. A definitive ruling on the matter could reverberate through American elections for decades by either endorsing the practice or curbing it.

The court has repeatedly failed to devise a practical standard for judges to use to resolve claims of gerrymandering and, in resolving the new cases, it could decide that one does not exist.

The composition of the high court, which has a 5- conservative majority, has changed since its last decisions on gerrymandering. Conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, who sometimes sided with the liberal justices in major cases, retired last year and was replaced by President Donald Trump's appointee Brett Kavanaugh in October.

Election reformers had hoped that Kennedy would have helped curb partisan gerrymandering. It remains to be seen what Kavanaugh will do with the issue.

In a 2004 case over gerrymandering, Kennedy wrote a concurring opinion that left the door open for courts to intervene if a "workable" standard for identifying and measuring impermissible gerrymandering could be devised.

The Maryland case was one of two on partisan gerrymandering that the court took up last term, with the other being a challenge to Republican-drawn state legislative districts in Wisconsin. Both were resolved without the justices weighing in on the hotly contested question of whether courts have the capacity to weigh such claims.

Legislative districts across the country are redrawn to reflect population changes contained in the nationwide census conducted by the federal government every decade.

This redistricting in most states is carried out by the party in power, though some states in the interest of fairness assign the task to independent commissions. Gerrymandering typically involves packing voters who tend to favor a particular party into a small number of districts to diminish their statewide voting power while dispersing others in districts in numbers too small to be a majority.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)