The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that partisan gerrymandering of congressional and legislative districts is none of its business, a decision that leaves state officials free from federal court challenges to their plans to shape districts to blatantly help their parties.
The court’s conservative majority, including the two justices appointed by President Donald Trump, prevailed in a 5-4 ruling that dealt a huge blow to efforts to combat the redrawing of district lines to benefit a particular party.
The decision, on the last day before the justices’ long summer break, has no effect on racial gerrymandering challenges. Courts have barred redistricting aimed at reducing the political representation of racial minorities for a half-century.
But the outcome brings an immediate halt to lawsuits that sought to rein in the most partisan districting plans that can result when one party controls a state’s legislature and governor’s office.
In the short term, Republicans are the prime beneficiaries of the ruling. They made dramatic political gains in the 2010 election just before the last round of redistricting, so they have controlled the process in many states. Democratic voters had persuaded lower courts to strike down districting plans in Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin. The one Republican suit came in Maryland, against a single congressional district.
Redistricting will next take place in 2021 once 2020 census results are available.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the sweeping redistricting majority opinion that drew an impassioned dissent from the liberal justices.
Voters and elected officials should be the arbiters of what is a political dispute, Roberts said in his opinion for the court. Federal courts are the wrong place to settle these disputes, he said.
“We have never struck down a partisan gerrymander as unconstitutional—despite various requests over the past 45 years. The expansion of judicial authority would not be into just any area of controversy, but into one of the most intensely partisan aspects of American political life,” Roberts wrote.
The court rejected challenges to Republican-drawn congressional districts in North Carolina and a Democratic district in Maryland.
“Our conclusion does not condone excessive partisan gerrymandering,” Roberts wrote, acknowledging that the North Carolina and Maryland maps are “highly partisan.”
In a dissent for the four liberals, Justice Elena Kagan wrote, “For the first time ever, this court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities.” Kagan, in mournful tones, read a summary of her dissent in court to emphasize her disagreement.
Partisan gerrymandering at its most extreme “amounts to ‘rigging elections,’” Kagan wrote, quoting retired Justice Anthony Kennedy in a case from 2004.
The practice allows politicians to “cherry-pick voters to ensure their reelection,” she wrote.
Advances in technology have allowed map-makers to draw districts with increasing precision, and advocates of limiting partisan districting have said the problem will grow even worse in the redistricting that follows the 2020 census.
One party can exaggerate and entrench its power, even in states that are otherwise closely divided between Republicans and Democrats.
Federal courts in five states had concluded that redistricting plans put in place under one party’s control could go too far and that there were ways to identify and manage excessively partisan districts. Those courts included 15 federal judges appointed by Republican and Democratic presidents reaching back to Jimmy Carter.
But the five Republican-appointed justices decided otherwise.
The decision effectively reverses the outcome of rulings in Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina and Ohio, where courts had ordered new maps drawn., and ends proceedings in Wisconsin, where a retrial was supposed to take place this summer after the Supreme Court last year threw out a decision on procedural grounds.
The court was examining two cases, from Maryland and North Carolina, with strong evidence that elected officials charged with drawing and approving congressional districts acted for maximum partisan advantage. In North Carolina, Republicans ran the process and sought to preserve a 10-3 split in the congressional delegation in favor of the GOP, even as statewide races are usually closely divided. In Maryland, Democrats controlled redistricting and sought to flip one district that had been represented by a Republican for 20 years.
Both plans succeeded, and lower courts concluded that the districts violated the Constitution.
Kennedy’s retirement from the court last year was a major setback to proponents of limits. He had kept the Supreme Court open to the possibility, though he never voted to strike down a district as too partisan. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Kennedy’s replacement, was part of Thursday’s majority.
Proponents of limiting partisan gerrymandering still have several routes open. Among those are challenges in state courts, including a pending North Carolina lawsuit. Those court challenges can only work, though, in places that have state constitutional provisions that allow for them.
That’s how state court judges in Pennsylvania struck down Republican-drawn congressional districts and redrew the congressional map in 2018.
Rarely does lightning strike twice in the same place, but two women who told their stories in Rock County Court this week had a thunderous impact on those listening, including the judge.
Wednesday, a young woman told of how she was degraded, abused, assaulted and threatened her over the course of a relationship with Quantrell D. Schwartzlow, 18, of Orfordville.
She said she still fears he might kill her.
She said those things while her attacker—charged with felony strangulation—sat fewer than 10 feet away.
Judge Karl Hanson told the woman he had seen courage during his two tours with the Army in Iraq, but he had never seen a more courageous act.
Then Thursday, Hanson sentenced another man, and the victim spoke her truth—again in emotional fashion—telling of the terror she felt and the fears she still feels.
It was the case of Tyler J. Brazee, 33, of Beaver Dam, who pleaded guilty to fourth-degree sexual assault, lewd and lascivious behavior, battery and disorderly conduct, all misdemeanors.
Brazee followed the woman from a store in Janesville to her home in Evansville on Dec. 2. He climbed the 15 steps to the porch outside her residence, exposed himself and groped the woman as he pushed her into a window, according to the criminal complaint.
The 56-year-old immigrant hairdresser said she thought she might die that day.
“It changed the way I live. I’m too scared to go out of my own house. I’m too scared to come home,” she said. “My granddaughter doesn’t want to come to my house anymore because she’s too scared she’s going to get dead. ...
“When any strange, new customer coming into my shop is a man, I get nervous. I’ve lived in Evansville for 33 years, and I never felt that way...
“I just want to know why, why he came after me. … He took away my trust. He took away my freedom. He took away my security.”
She repeated the question—why?—several times, at one point speculating that he targeted her because of her race—she is Asian—or her diminutive stature.
She sniffled through most of her statement, sounding angry at times, and also sad and afraid.
“I just want you to make sure he’s not going to do this to anybody else,” she told Hanson.
“He’s 200 pounds heavier than I am, and I don’t know how I managed to fight him off. ... I was afraid for my life. I didn’t know if he was on drugs, or if he just has something wrong with him, but I was afraid that, my God, I’m going to die, right here at my front door.”
All she could think was to get away from him, she said. “I was willing to jump down 15 steps. I’d rather die of a broken neck than die by his hand.”
“He not only hurt me. He hurt my family, my friends. I’m sure he hurt his family, too, by the way he acted. I’m sure no mother would raise any children to grow up to be like that.”
Two years of probation is just a slap on the hand to say “don’t do it again,” she said, “or just wait two years before he does it again.”
Assistant District Attorney Anne Nack told Hanson that Brazee has a minimal criminal record—charges of resisting/obstructing and disorderly conduct in 2013 that were dismissed as part of a deferred-prosecution agreement.
He has been getting psychological treatment on his own, and the two nights he spent in jail after his arrest were “traumatic,” Nack said.
On the other hand, the offenses are serious and will affect the victim all of her life, Nack said.
The victim said she doesn’t think Brazee is sorry, but he gave an emotional apology.
“I do not go through a single day without thinking through what I did, what I was, how I could be a better person,” he said.
Brazee said he is re-evaluating and removing all the negative influences in his life and is working with a therapist to understand what caused him to do what he did, and he hopes the victim takes solace in the fact that he is trying to be a better person.
“I just hope that you can enjoy life again, that you can find trust in people again,” he said to her. “… I won’t even say your name because I don’t feel I have the right to mention your name. You have the power over me, and you always will. I hope you know I will never feel anything but remorse, sympathy and apologetic thoughts towards you. Anything else, I will not allow it to happen in my mind.”
Brazee did not, however, answer the victim’s question: Why?
In both the Schwartzlow and Brazee cases, Hanson focused on the need for punishment. At the prosecutor’s suggestion, he doubled the prison sentence that the state Department of Corrections recommended for Schwartzlow.
And in Brazee’s case, Hanson took the uncommon step of not accepting a plea agreement between the defense and prosecution.
The agreement called for two years of probation. Hanson said the seriousness of the crime called for more. He added nine months in jail to the two years of probation.
Hanson spoke to both victims, offering similar words about their courage and futures.
“The strength that you’ve demonstrated here, the support that I see for you there in the courtroom (her loved ones who accompanied her), tells me you are going to persevere, that you are not going to be defined by this,” Hanson said Thursday.
“I know this is going to be a difficult path ahead for you, but I have every reason to believe that you are going to come out all the stronger and that you are going to continue to make a very positive difference in our community,” he said.
Some women struggle with feelings of shame and would not speak out in public the way two survivors of violence did this week in Rock County Court, said Jessi Luepnitz, program director for the YWCA Rock County Alternatives to Violence program.
But those who can do it can find it empowering, and it could help others in similar situations, Luepnitz said.
“Others will hear it and know they are not alone, so that can be very empowering as well,” she said.
“And if the offender is brought to justice, it’s even more empowering because they know something’s going to be done to rectify what happened to them,” Luepnitz said.
She said if enough victims speak out, it can shift the way people think about domestic violence and sexual assault.
People often do not want to believe such things happen in their communities, so they would rather not talk about it, Luepnitz said. But talking about it brings awareness, and knowledge is power.
And a shift in thinking could make people say they don’t want this happening in their community and ask who will do something about it, Luepnitz said.
People could decide to step in when they see abuse happening, Luepnitz said, but even just having difficult conversations about such painful subjects can educate others.
Viola L. DeHaan
Sylvia Marie Denio
Sandra L. Haenel
Sgt. William “Bill” Melloch
Lucille Louise Wilcox
On the current road repair schedule of 12 miles per year, all of Janesville’s streets will be redone in 28 years.
On the current schedule of costs, it will cost an estimated $9 million to pay for those miles and the accompanying curb/gutter work in 2024. That is almost twice as much as it cost in 2016.
The long repair time frame and rising costs create challenges for the city that officials discussed Thursday during a city council strategic planning session at City Hall.
Janesville City Manager Mark Freitag and Finance Director Max Gagin used phrases no municipal government official wants to use. These included “go to referendum,” “reduce services,” “increase the wheel tax” and “special assessments.”
The discussion also introduced an innovative possibility for covering road repair and replacement costs used elsewhere in the state.
Freitag told council members that increasing costs meant they would have to pick one of three options:
Gagin and City Engineer Mike Payne said each option came with special challenges.
To begin with, the state Department of Transportation development manual states that the expected life span for new asphalt is 18 years and that the life for a rehabbed road is about 12, Payne noted. Under either number, Janesville’s 28-year cycle for road repairs means streets must go beyond their effective life span, but that timetable is what the City Council decided it could afford.
Council policies also limit borrowing to 2.5% of equalized value. In 2024, it is estimated that road work would take up so much of the allowed borrowing that capital purchases and any other improvements would have to be reduced, Gagin said.
Options for increasing revenue from other sources include:
Another option would be to create a new transportation utility, Gagin said. The village of Weston and the city of Neenah have created such utilities to help them pay for roads, Gagin said. Like other utilities, fees would be based on usage or “stormwater equivalent runoff units.”
A “runoff unit” refers to the amount of paved surface around a home or business. Most homes in Janesville are one runoff unit, though some smaller lots might be less than a full runoff unit.
Property owners in the utility would be charged $1.81 per runoff unit per $100,000 of road repairs. For example, if the city wanted to spend $500,000, it would cost each property owner in the transportation utility $9.80 per runoff unit. Utility collections wouldn’t cover the full cost of road work, but it would reduce how much the city has to borrow.
Council member Doug Marklein said he was opposed to assessing property owners for work and predicted failure for any referendum. He also thought doing any less than 12 miles of road work each year could be dangerous.
Freitag asked council members to consider the options and bring their preferences to a planning meeting Aug. 1.