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June 19th, 2018:

SCOTUS punts on non-Texas redistricting cases

The Magic 8 ballSCOTUS says Reply hazy, try again later in the two partisan gerrymandering cases before it.

On Monday, the court punted two major political redistricting cases: Gill v. Whitford, a challenge to Wisconsin’s Republican gerrymander, and Benisek v. Lamone, a challenge to Maryland’s Democratic gerrymander. Together, Gill and Benisek presented the Supreme Court with an opportunity to finally decide whether legislators violate the Constitution when they draw districts designed to dilute the power of voters’ ballots on the basis of their political associations. Instead, the court shooed away both cases on plausible but not entirely satisfactory grounds. Its nondecision will allow partisan gerrymandering to continue for the time being. Yet Justice Elena Kagan’s concurring opinion provides a road map for voting rights advocates to follow in the future—one that might attract Justice Anthony Kennedy’s vote if he remains on the court.

Ironically, Gill’s assault on Wisconsin’s gerrymander failed for precisely the reason that so many advocates thought it would succeed. In 2004, the Supreme Court splintered on the question of whether the judiciary can strike down a legislative map drawn along unduly political lines. Kennedy declared that courts might be able to, because partisan gerrymandering constitutes a genuine threat to voters’ First Amendment rights to free association and expression. But first, Kennedy wrote, the courts would need reliable, manageable, and consistent “judicial standards” to determine when, exactly, a gerrymander infringes upon these rights.

Gill marked an effort to hand Kennedy that standard, in the form of the “efficiency gap.” This formula measures two types of “wasted votes”: “lost votes” cast for a defeated candidate and “surplus votes” cast for a winning candidate that weren’t necessary for her to win. As its creator explains it, the efficiency gap measures “the difference between the parties’ respective wasted votes in an election, divided by the total number of votes cast.” A large efficiency gap indicates a particularly egregious partisan gerrymander; an efficiency gap of 7 percent can entrench the majority party’s power indefinitely. Wisconsin’s GOP-drawn gerrymander has an efficiency gap of 13 percent, indicating that Democrats could not possibly win back a majority in the state legislature. The Gill plaintiffs used this calculation as proof that Wisconsin Republicans had trammeled their First Amendment rights.

But here’s the problem: In order to bring a lawsuit in federal court, an individual must have standing—a “particularized injury” that burdens their rights individually. And in Gill, the group of voters who sued Wisconsin Republicans had not proved that their specific votes had been diluted on account of their association with the Democratic Party. Instead, Chief Justice Roberts wrote in his majority opinion, they “rested their case” on a “theory of statewide injury to Wisconsin Democrats.” This statewide injury, Roberts held, was not sufficiently particularized to give the plaintiffs standing to sue. So he sent the case back down to the lower court, giving the plaintiffs another opportunity to prove that Wisconsin’s gerrymander directly injures them.

[…]

Kagan, on the other hand, wrote a concurring opinion, joined by the other three liberals, effectively providing the plaintiffs with guidance on how to prove standing next time around. After reiterating that partisan gerrymandering is “incompatible with democratic principles,” Kagan explained that the plaintiffs should now “introduce evidence that their individual districts” were drawn to dilute Democratic votes. Moreover, the lower court should still “consider statewide evidence,” such as GOP mapmakers’ explicit desire to create a map that disfavored Democrats. Taken together, this evidence should suffice to give the plaintiffs standing.

But Kagan went further, giving the plaintiffs a different route to victory on their second try. The justice explained that partisan gerrymandering may burden a voter’s constitutional rights even if she does not live in a gerrymandered district. In Wisconsin, for example, all members of the state Democratic party are “deprived of their natural political strength by a partisan gerrymander.” As a result, members of this “disfavored party … may face difficulties fundraising, registering voters, attracting volunteers, generating support from independents, and recruiting candidates to run for office.” Individual voters may have standing, Kagan wrote, when mapmakers burden their “associational rights” in this manner. And their injury—a broad harm to their “First Amendment rights of association”—would be fairly easy to prove.

I’ll let you read that story and the “more reading” links at the end for analysis, but that’s the gist of it there. Expect to see this case take another tour through the courts, with a different name or set of names on top. The main thing to remember otherwise is that these cases were about partisan gerrymandering, which is not a claim being decided in the Texas litigation. That one is an old-fashioned racial discrimination claim, so the court has no real basis to send it back. Though with this court, who knows. I was clearly of the opinion back in April when the case was argued that we would have a decision by the end of June, but now I think I got that wrong. The Gill case was argued last October, so based on that I now expect this to be handed down late in the year. But again, with this court, who knows? Ian Millhiser, Rick Hasen, Daily Kos, and Pema Levy have more.

Carlos Uresti resigns

About fscking time.

Carlos Uresti

Finally heeding calls from his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, state Sen. Carlos Uresti announced his resignation Monday, four months after he was found guilty of 11 felonies.

The news comes just over a week before the San Antonio Democrat is set to be sentenced by a federal judge in San Antonio; experts predict his penalty will be 8 to 12 years of prison time. He’s also scheduled for a trial in October on separate fraud and bribery charges.

“As you know, I am in the process of ensuring that justice is served,” Uresti wrote in a statement Monday. “I need to attend to my personal matters and properly care for my family. So, keeping in mind the best interests of my constituents and my family, I believe it to be most prudent that I step down from my elected office to focus on these important issues.”

[…]

His resignation will become effective Thursday.

In his announcement Monday, Uresti asked Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special election for the seat on the next uniform election date, which is the general election date in November. Doing so, he said, would save the district’s 17 counties thousands of dollars. The governor’s office did not immediately return a request for comment on timing for the election.

Several Democrats have already lined up to replace Uresti. State Rep. Roland Gutierrez announced his bid for the seat less than a month after the conviction; in early April, former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego joined the fray as well.

See here and here for the background. Assuming we do get a November special election, which would join the other November special election(s) that we should get, we can have a replacement for Uresti sworn in and ready to go no worse than January, which is so much better than waiting till after November for a special election to be set. I’m sure there will be others besides Gutierrez and Gallego in the race, and as before I don’t have a preference at this time. Uresti set a low bar to clear, so an upgrade is likely. I for one am very ready for that.

Health care needs to be a twofer

Lt. Governor candidate Mike Collier is on the right track here, but he needs to keep going.

Mike Collier

Lieutenant governor hopeful Mike Collier announced his health care reform plan Tuesday, which aims to reduce costs and increase access to health care in Texas.

“Achieving these goals will not be easy,” Collier said in a statement. “But it’s time to get cracking. Doing nothing — the only skill our current governor and lieutenant governor seem to possess — is no longer acceptable.”

Colliers faces incumbent GOP Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in November’s general election. Patrick has been a fierce opponent of the Affordable Care Act and any move to expand Medicaid, the health care program for the poor and disabled, to include the working poor.

Collier said Texas’ decision not to pay for health care costs for Texans who cannot afford health insurance is “unbelievably stupid,” and said that using federal dollars to close the coverage gap will bring Texas an estimated $9 billion per year in federal dollars and create as many as 250,000 jobs.

Collier said his plan also includes deploying state money to encourage Texans to buy insurance, which he said will drive down the cost of health care.

Additionally, Collier emphasized price transparency and a “Patient Financial Bill of Rights,” which would require insurance companies to provide health care prices in advance, show the availability of less expensive drugs and procedures, and itemize bills “in plain language,” among other requirements.

This is all good, but it’s missing an opportunity. You’ve heard me say this before, but it bears repeating – over and over and over again – that if we’re really going to talk about improving mental health care, which is all we ever talk about after another mass shooting, then we have to talk about expanding Medicaid, because it’s by far the biggest and best way to pay for mental health care for the people who need it. If we’re not talking about expanding Medicaid, then we’re just flapping our lips when we bring up the “mental illness” shibboleth. We need to keep saying this until it starts to sink in. You took a good first step, Mike Collier. Now please take the next steps.