U.S. Supreme Court ruling on partisan gerrymandering gives Utah Republican leaders free rein in drawing voting maps

(AP Photo | Susan Walsh) A view of the Supreme Court in Washington, Friday, March 15, 2019.

Utahns reacted with shrugs and scorn to Thursday’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that political redistricting based on partisan interests is outside the purview of the federal courts.

During his monthly televised press conference at KUED, Gov. Gary Herbert was unfazed by the ruling, saying it aligns with what “a lot of us thought."

But while lawmakers, who are overwhelmingly Republican, are now explicitly free to draw maps that benefit themselves and their party, Herbert said he expects Utah will follow “as a blueprint” a recent anti-gerrymandering initiative that won a narrow majority of a statewide vote in November.

“I think guidelines are important,” Herbert, a Republican, said. “[It] helps the Legislature as they try to decide how to draw the lines.”

Jim Dabakis — a former state senator and one-time chairman of the Utah Democratic Party now running for Salt Lake City mayor — criticized Thursday’s ruling on Twitter, saying it had “snuffed” government of, for and by the people, and suggesting that the membership of the Supreme Court be increased, a controversial proposal known as “court packing.”

“It is time to consider an expanded Supreme Court by a new President and a new Senate,” Dabakis wrote.

Last year, Utah voters approved propositions 2, 3 and 4, dealing with medical marijuana, Medicaid expansion and redistricting, respectively. Lawmakers quickly repealed propositions 2 and 3, replacing those initiative with more restrictive plans, and have suggested that amendments — or an outright repeal — of proposition 4 are likely during the upcoming 2020 session.

Under Proposition 4, an independent redistricting commission will be impanelled to create and recommend voting maps to the state Legislature. Lawmakers can then accept or reject those maps in a process intended to comply with language in the Utah Constitution granting redistricting authority to the Legislature.

On Thursday, Better Boundaries — the group behind Prop 4 — issued a statement saying it is proud to stand with Utah voters who support the independent redistricting commission.

“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,” Better Boundaries’ statement reads. “As such, Utah can even more confidently move forward with the reasonable and balanced approach to eliminate partisan gerrymandering in our state.”

Chief Justice John Roberts in the 5-4 majority opinion specifically mentioned redistricting commissions as a potential check on gerrymandered districts.

But he concluded that justices “have no commission to allocate political power and influence in the absence of a constitutional directive or legal standards to guide us.” Conservatives on the court agreed that redistricting belongs in the political rather than the judicial realm.

Liberals, led by Justice Elena Kagan, wrote a stinging dissent that the gerrymandering cases before the court, from North Carolina and Maryland, “debased and dishonored our democracy, turning upside-down the core American idea that all governmental power derives from the people.”

Herbert said it is not easy to carve up the state in a way that is fair to everyone. He said the issue of partisan gerrymandering has likely benefitted both major parties, with Utah including both Republican and Democratic strongholds.

“I do know the last time we did it that Democrats and Republicans unanimously agreed to the legislative redistricting,” Herbert said. “The only controversy seems to be whether we’re got the congressional seats redistricted correctly.”

In Utah, Republicans’s decadeslong supermajority of legislative seats make it virtually impossible for Democrats to impede partisan gerrymandering.

An analysis of the 2018 popular vote by The Salt Lake Tribune found that Democrats won 1 out of 5 seats in the Utah Legislature, despite receiving 1 out of every 3 legislative votes. That disparity is equivalent to nine House seats which, if won by Democrats, would jeopardize the Republicans’ veto-proof supermajority.

Derek Brown, the newly elected chairman of the Utah Republican Party, declined to comment for this article.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, has described the redistricting power as the spoils of victory. He wrote on Twitter on Thursday that he was not surprised by the court’s decision.

“The Constitution was not written to protect political parties or political ideologies,” he wrote. “In fact, political parties did not exist until after the Constitution was ratified.”

The United Utah Party, which pitches itself as a moderate alternative to the two major parties, issued a statement Thursday describing the Supreme Court ruling as “bad.”

“They should have restricted partisan gerrymandering,” the party stated. "Instead, they are opening the door for more of it, including by the Utah State Legislature.

United Utah said the ruling highlights the need for Proposition 4 to be preserved in state law.

“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,” the party stated. “We urge Utah state legislators not to take this decision as open season on Prop 4, but to respect the will of the voters.”

And Chase Thomas, executive director for the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah, said the Supreme Court had abdicated its responsibility of ensuring fair elections. It is imperative, Thomas said, that Utah’s voters and the independent redistricting committee be respected.

“As we move closer to 2021, Better Utah is committed to ensuring that the redistricting process is fair and transparent," Thomas said. "We expect lawmakers to make the same commitment.”