Janai Nelson


Parsing Partisanship and Punishment: An Approach to Partisan Gerrymandering and Race

Janai Nelson

The threat of extreme and punishing partisan gerrymandering has increased exponentially since 2019 when the Supreme Court held partisan gerrymandering claims nonjusticiable. Although the Court was unanimous in recognizing that partisan gerrymandering can undermine the fair functioning of the electoral process, neither Rucho’s majority nor its dissent acknowledged the unique harm partisan gerrymandering visits upon the operation of our multiracial, multiethnic democracy when coupled with the upsurge of conjoined racial and partisan polarization. The Court’s failure to establish a limiting principle for the degree to which partisanship can usurp the redistricting process means that there is no federal guidance to cabin partisan gerrymandering and no measure to take account of the race-driven effect of the group lockout that partisan gerrymandering often produces. Absent this critical instruction from the Supreme Court, lower courts, civil rights advocates, and affected voters must turn to racial gerrymandering jurisprudence to discern first principles to guide a judicial response to partisan gerrymandering’s particular relation to and compounded effect on account of race. Fortunately, there is a through line from Rucho to the Court’s racial gerrymandering jurisprudence that plausibly permits federal courts to address hybrid racial and partisan gerrymandering claims and parse pure partisanship from punishment—if they are willing.