Gill v. Whitford

Following is the case brief for Gill v. Whitford, 138 S. Ct. 1916 (2018)

Case Summary of Gill v. Whitford:

  • In 2010, the Republican majority in Wisconsin gerrymandered the State’s districts to ensure a Republican majority in the State for the foreseeable future.
  • Democratic voters sued in federal court, alleging that the partisan gerrymander violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
  • The District Court agreed that the redistricting violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case to the District Court.  The Supreme Court held that the plaintiffs failed to allege personal harm to establish standing to sue.  The Court, however, remanded the case so the plaintiffs could better establish personal harm, and thus establish standing.

Gill v. Whitford Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

In 2010, Republicans took control of the Wisconsin State legislature and the governor’s office.  The Wisconsin Constitution provides that after each census the legislature must redraw the district boundaries, which are used to elect members of the State’s legislature.  The Republicans passed a new districting plan that was intended to secure Republican control of the State government for many years.  The Republicans created such a districting plan by “cracking” certain Democratic voters to ensure that a Democratic majority could not be achieved in those districts, and “packing” Democratic voters in just a small number of districts in which Democratic candidates would win by large margins.

Several Wisconsin Democratic voters sued in federal court, alleging that the gerrymandered districts statewide violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments.  Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged that, by diluting the Democratic vote statewide, there was a violation of the First Amendment’s right of association, and the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection.  The defendants were election officials who moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue.

Procedural History:

  • A three-judge panel of the District Court denied the defendants’ motion. Following a trial, the court held that the plaintiffs’ equal protection rights were violated.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted an appeal from the District Court.

Issue and Holding:

Do Democratic voters, alleging that a statewide redistricting plan is an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, have standing to make a statewide challenge to the redistricting plan?  No.

Judgment:

The decision of the District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin is reversed and remanded.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

A voter must allege personal harm in order to have Article III standing to challenge a redistricting plan as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.

Reasoning:

Over the last 50 years, the Court has been asked to decide what judicially enforceable limits, under the Constitution, are available for partisan gerrymandering.  The Court has yet to come up with a workable answer.  The most recent opinions center around the rationale that a partisan gerrymander is a non-justiciable political question.

In order to address the claim here, standing analysis is appropriate.  Under Court precedent, a plaintiff does not have standing unless he or she has a “personal stake” in the outcome of the controversy, i.e., show an “injury in fact.”  Here, the plaintiffs have failed to show any personal injury based on the redistricting plan.  Statewide harm is not personal harm, and dilution of a vote is insufficient to be personal harm.  Importantly, there is a difference between a group’s political interest and an individual’s legal rights.  Accordingly, because the case is meant to remedy a group’s political interests, the Court is not the appropriate forum to make a determination.

The case should not be dismissed for lack of standing, however.  The case concerns an unsettled claim at this point.  So, the case is remanded so the plaintiffs will have an opportunity to prove concrete injury, showing a burden to individual votes.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Kagan):

The Court is correct to give the plaintiffs a chance to prove that they live in packed or cracked districts.  If the plaintiffs can prove standing, then the case should be able to go forward using statewide evidence to seek a statewide remedy.  Further, the plaintiffs may want to pursue more than just a vote-dilution theory.  Plaintiffs can present their First Amendment right of association claims with more clarity.

Concurring in part (Thomas):

The plaintiffs lack standing.  The case should be dismissed, not remanded.

Significance:

Gill v. Whitford is a significant case in the line of partisan gerrymandering cases.  It does not deal with the question of non-justiciability as a political question, and Justice Kagan actually gives a roadmap to help plaintiffs in this case, and others, in the future.  What has become clear, however, is that the extent of political gerrymandering that is occurring in the country is so dramatic that the Court will eventually be unable to look away based on standing or non-justiciability.

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments

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