SALT LAKE CITY — In wake of the Supreme Court's narrow ruling Thursday deciding federal courts have no role to play in the dispute over partisan gerrymandering, backers of the voter-approved Proposition 4 are calling on Utah politicians to let the Better Boundaries initiative stand.
The Supreme Court ruling may create complications for the Utah initiative — which establishes an independent redistricting commission in an effort to combat gerrymandering — if the Utah Legislature makes district changes Proposition 4 backers may want to challenge in court. The ruling, however, only relates to federal courts, not state courts, so it doesn't rule out a potential state court case.
“Just because you’re allowed to do something, doesn’t mean you should," said Chase Thomas, executive director for the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah, a Proposition 4 supporter, said Thursday.
Just because you’re allowed to do something, doesn’t mean you should. – Chase Thomas, executive director of Alliance for a Better Utah
"Now that the Supreme Court has abdicated its responsibility of ensuring fair elections, it is even more important that Utah lawmakers take a stand against partisan gerrymandering and the role it plays in further dividing our communities and nation," Thomas said. "For the sake of Utahns’ trust in government institutions and the fairness of elections, it is imperative that lawmakers respect the people’s vote on Proposition 4 and the independent redistricting committee it created."
Utah lawmakers have indicated there may be changes coming to fix what one senator calls technical "fatal defects" with Proposition 4, but it's not yet clear how sweeping of changes could be proposed.
Gov. Gary Herbert during his monthly KUED news conference Thursday pointed out the ballot initiative passed on a "narrow margin," but he also said, "I expect we will, in fact, follow that as a blueprint."
He said he expected the Utah Legislature will "listen to the will of the people."
"I think it's important, we want to help people feel like as we redistrict it has some fairness to it, that it's really not just a political decision," Herbert said. "But it's really designed to, in fact, help people have fair and adequate representation … I think the Legislature will do the right thing, the right way."
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, told the Deseret News he's "not sure" lawmakers will take action on Proposition 4, but he added lawmakers have been in discussions with the proposition's drafters on making technical changes to some "fatal defects" with the law.
"Stay tuned, we'll see what happens in the next two years," Weiler said, indicating any changes would likely be in "compromise" with Proposition 4 backers.
It wouldn't be the first time the Utah Legislature made adjustments to voter-approved ballot initiatives. After last November's election, lawmakers made changes to Utah’s Medicaid expansion initiative and the medical marijuana initiative. A legal challenge to Utah’s medical marijuana “compromise” law has gone to the Utah Supreme Court.
Supreme Court ruling
Thursday, the Supreme Court's final day before a summer break, five Republican-appointed justices outweighed four liberal justices, ruling federal courts have no part in the dispute over partisan gerrymandering. The decision could embolden political line-drawing for partisan gain when lawmakers undertake the next round of redistricting following the 2020 census, the Associated Press reported.
Voters and elected officials should be the arbiters of what is a political dispute, Chief Justice John Roberts said in his opinion for the court. In a dissent opinion, Justice Elena Kagan lambasted the majority's view.
"For the first time ever, this court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities," Kagan wrote.
The court rejected challenges to Republican-drawn congressional districts in North Carolina and a Democratic district in Maryland. Thursday's ruling 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.
Proponents of limiting partisan gerrymandering still have several routes open to them, including challenges in state courts. There is a pending North Carolina lawsuit.
Utah's Better Boundaries' ballot initiative came in an effort to give minorities more say in the drawing of districts during the once-a-decade process of redrawing congressional, legislative and state school boundaries to reflect population shifts identified in the national census. The 2020 census could give way to district changes in 2021.
Proposition 4 creates an independent commission and a set of standards to be utilized in future state redistricting. The Utah Legislature could either approve or reject the commission's recommendations.
Weiler said he wasn't surprised by the ruling and the fact it was a 5-4 split. He said the Constitution was not written to protect political parties or ideologies.
"I do think this is an issue for the states," he said, noting that the Supreme Court ruling only deals with federal courts. "So there still may be some cases that go to the Utah Supreme Court."
Better Boundaries co-chairs Jeff Wright, Ralph Becker, Blake Moore and Karen Shepherd issued a joint statement Thursday, expressing confidence the federal ruling won't negatively impact Proposition 4.
"The practical result of today's Supreme Court ruling recognized that state-level independent commissions, such as the one established by Prop. 4, are an appropriate vehicle to address effects of partisan gerrymandering," the statement said. "As such, Utah can even more confidently move forward with the reasonable and balanced approach to eliminate partisan gerrymandering in our state."
But the United Utah Party, which opposes gerrymandering, called the Supreme Court's ruling a "bad decision," saying it should have "restricted partisan gerrymandering."
"Instead, they are opening the door for more of it, including by the Utah State Legislature," the party said in a statement issued by Jim Bennett, the party's spokesman.
"The U.S. Supreme Court prevented a remedy to state legislators serving their own interests in drawing congressional and legislative district lines by declaring that partisan gerrymandering was constitutional," Bennett said. "We applaud the justices' desire to allow 'political' questions generally to remain in the hands of elected officials. However, this is a problem that the U.S. Supreme Court could have helped remedy by providing assistance to those who are trying to end this practice. "
In Utah, Democrats have won about one-third of the statewide vote, but they hold only 15 percent of seats in the Legislature, Bennett said.
"In each case, the majority party used its power to draw lines harming other parties and their voters," he said. "That is a constitutional violation because it robs voters of the value of their vote."
The Supreme Court's decision highlights "the need to preserve" Proposition 4, Bennett said.
"Our fear is that Utah state legislators will take this decision as carte blanche for what they wish to do with Prop. 4, including gut it," he said. "We urge Utah state legislators not to take this decision as open season on Prop. 4, but to respect the will of the voters."
Rep. Ben McAdams, Utah's only Democratic member of Congress, said the Supreme Court's ruling "only reinforces the importance of the locally adopted independent process put in place by Utah voters.
"When I was in the Utah state Senate, I saw firsthand politicians choosing which voters they wanted to guarantee their reelection," McAdams said. "Utah voters adopted an independent process for drawing boundaries, putting voters in charge of choosing their leaders, not the other way around."
Other members of Utah's congressional delegation applauded the Supreme Court's ruling.
"The Constitution gives state legislatures and Congress the authority to regulate federal elections, and this decision upholds that principle," Sen. Mitt Romney said.
Rep. John Curtis said he's "encouraged" that redistricting decisions "will be left in the hands of state and local leaders, not federal judges."
"On too many issues we look to the courts as a maker of the laws instead of as an interpreter of the laws," Curtis said. "Today’s ruling appears to be a positive step away from the judicial activism that has plagued our system for far too long."
Other members of Utah's delegation did not immediately return requests for comment Thursday.
Contributing: Associated Press