Gerrymandering, the census and the class character of the Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court handed down two important decisions on June 27.  Both have major ramifications for the working class, especially the most oppressed peoples. SCOTUS ruled 5-4 against Trump-appointed Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, who sought a requirement that all residents who fill out the 2020 census state if they are U.S. citizens or not. In a separate decision, the justices voted 5-4 to allow gerrymandered congressional district maps in North Carolina and Maryland to remain in place.

Im/migrant rights and Latinx groups and their allies had filed lawsuits to block the citizenship question from appearing on the 2020 census form because it would discourage im/migrants from participating in the census. Plaintiffs argued that adding this question would lead to an undercount, especially of the Latinx population, due to the fear of many Latinxs that if they answered these questions, the information could be used against them.  

This would have negative consequences for African-American, Latinx and other communities of the oppressed. Federal grants for social services could be cut if reports falsely show declining populations. States could end up with fewer congressional districts. Underrepresented communities of color would have even less political clout in Washington.

The high court’s majority did not reject all of Ross’s arguments, but ruled 5-4 against his duplicitous pretext: that the citizenship question was needed to uphold the Voting Rights Act. In his decision, however, Chief Justice John Roberts did not challenge its fallacious content, writing only that Ross “adopted the Voting Rights Act rationale late in the process.”   

(New York Times, June 27)

Ross and his Republican cohorts have no intention of upholding voting rights. Plaintiffs’ attorneys discovered on May 30: “A central portion of the Justice Department’s rationale for the question was apparently written by Thomas Hofeller, the GOP’s longtime gerrymandering mastermind. 

“In a 2015 study, Hofeller wrote that adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census would be ‘advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites’ and ‘a disadvantage to the Democrats.’” The late Hofeller’s estranged daughter revealed emails on June 14 between him and census official Christa Jones which explained “how the question would benefit white voters and disadvantage non-white ones” and discussed collusion with the racist, xenophobic Center of Immigration Studies. (Slate, June 15)

Roberts sent this matter back to the Commerce Department, but the top court may rehear the case if Ross and Trump come up with a new pretext for the citizenship question.

The reason Trump rushed the case to the high court, bypassing federal circuit courts, was purportedly that it had to be decided before the census forms went to print June 30. Now he is seeking to delay the start of the census to allow a new, still undisclosed pretext to be considered. Trump may also attempt to force the racist question onto the form via executive order.

For now, census forms are being printed without the citizenship question, a relief to im/migrant communities. That this court, with its conservative majority, unexpectedly ruled as it did is a testament to the strength of the im/migrant rights movement. This movement has demonstrated its strength with massive numbers of people countrywide demanding: “Close the camps!”

Right-wing court upholds gerrymandering

The Supreme Court also decided two lawsuits based on “partisan gerrymandering” in North Carolina and Maryland.  Gerrymandering occurs when a state legislature draws voting district maps to benefit the state’s majority party. Lower courts ruled that such maps were unconstitutional.

Voters sued, charging their legislators with “packing and cracking.”  Under this scheme, voters for the opposition party are “packed” into a small number of districts that the majority party — Republicans in North Carolina, Democrats in Maryland — is unlikely to win. The rest are “cracked” into districts where they are decidedly a minority.

The court did not determine if the state legislatures were guilty or not. Their 5-4 decision, addressing both cases, was based on the premise that drawing district maps was up to states and therefore outside its jurisdiction. “To hold that legislators cannot take their partisan interests into account when drawing district lines would essentially countermand the Framers’ [of the Constitution] decision to entrust districting to political entities,” wrote Chief Justice Roberts. (supremecourt.gov)

Thus five conservative justices who are appointed for life, two by Trump, invoked the old segregationist fallback position of “states’ rights.” They did so in the name of the rich, white male slave-owning “framers.” They threw their legal weight behind Hofeller’s racist strategy, defined in his blunt statement in 1991: “I define redistricting as the only legalized form of vote-stealing left in the United States today.” (npr, June 6)

While the cases heard involve both Democrats and Republicans, the ruling is a gift to the GOP, which controls a majority of state legislatures. It immediately impacts Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan, whose cases the Supreme Court put on hold pending the outcome of the North Carolina and Maryland lawsuits. The gerrymandered district maps there will remain in place, and won’t be redrawn until after the 2020 election.

As Michigan’s grassroots organization Voters Not Politicians explained after the decision came down: “This ruling will allow politicians across the country to continue gerrymandering our election district maps for their own personal and political gain.” Voters in Michigan overwhelmingly passed ballot measures in 2018 creating independent commissions to redraw district maps, but not until 2021.

Tools of racist voter suppression

While SCOTUS distinguished between “partisan” and “racial” gerrymandering — the latter being within its jurisdiction — boosting white voting strength is a key component of both. Called “Ohio’s poll tax,” political gerrymandering is used to disenfranchise African-American and Latinx communities.

The many forms of voter suppression are well-documented. Polls in oppressed communities run out of voting forms or the voting machines are broken. Officials at polling places turn away some voters, allegedly due to long lines, while others cannot wait in line because of work, family and other obligations. Names are missing from lists of registered voters. Many states bar former prisoners from voting.

This has resulted in a disproportionate lack of representation for oppressed communities. Ohio has only two Black congressional representatives, while Michigan and Wisconsin each have only one. 

The high court has once again upheld a centuries-old, often-bloody tradition of racism at the polls.

Supreme Court: an anti-democratic body 

The so-called “framers” of the Constitution created the Supreme Court in 1789. Nine wealthy, property-owning white men were appointed for life to the highest judicial body in the country. 

The court has remained almost all white and male since its founding, with only two African-American justices, one Latinx woman and three white women for 230 years. Blatant white supremacists and misogynists have gotten through the nomination process, from KKK member Hugo Black to sexual predator Brett Kavanaugh. Most appointees come from privileged backgrounds.

This is not accidental. Sam Marcy, the late Workers World Party chairperson and founder, explained the undemocratic character of the Supreme Court when it upheld a Missouri law restricting reproductive rights in 1989: “The abortion decision confirms that whenever the bourgeoisie is in a crisis, they will let nine people, unelected, appointed for life, decide the most critical issues concerning life in the United States.”  (tinyurl.com/y4896qv5) 

Marcy pointed out: “Over years of struggle the franchise has been won” by oppressed nationalities and women. “However, alongside this bourgeois democratization of the political process, there has been a simultaneous social and economic process which is superior in strength. That is the process of the concentration of power in undemocratic bodies.

“It comes from the concentration of the means of production in the hands of a ruling class which holds the power and distributes it in areas most conducive to them,” says Marcy. “So it’s not an accident that power should ultimately be exercised by the Supreme Court. That’s most reliable to them, most conservative, responsive only to those who have appointed them.”

Behind the erosion of voting rights lies the “concentration of power in undemocratic bodies,” as Marcy explains. This exposes the lie that the capitalist U.S. is a model of democracy.

(Voters Not Politicians)

(Voters Not Politicians)

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