Avoiding a ruling that threatened the way California and other states map their political districts, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday preserved the "one person, one vote" method of crafting political boundaries.
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court rejected a conservative group's challenge to Texas' method of drawing political districts, concluding that there is a long history backing the use of total population numbers to create representative political districts. The high court left open the possibility for future challenges to the principle but indicated strong support for allowing states to keep the status quo.
While legal experts anticipated Monday's outcome, the challenge could have upended the way states draw their political districts based on census-driven overall population numbers -- an outcome that may have altered political influence in states such as California, where mushrooming Latino populations in urban areas, including undocumented immigrants and other noncitizens, play a key part in shaping political maps.
Conservative groups challenged the "one person, one vote" premise based on a simple argument that counting overall population, including those ineligible to vote, unfairly diminishes the power of citizens who are eligible to vote. They urged the Supreme Court to invalidate the current system, which would force states to completely redraw local and state political districts using different factors and perhaps open the door to eventually reconfiguring congressional districts.
But the Supreme Court, in a decision written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, rejected the arguments, in large part based on past high court rulings and historical support for relying on overall population to set political districts.
"Settled practice confirms what constitutional history and prior decisions strongly suggest," the Supreme Court wrote. "Adopting voter-eligible apportionment as constitutional command would upset a well-functioning approach to districting that all 50 states and countless local jurisdictions have long followed.
"Nonvoters have an important stake in many policy debates and in receiving constituent services," the court added.
The backdrop of the legal showdown is the increasingly tense political tug-of-war between Republicans and Democrats over voting regulations, from the Supreme Court's 2013 ruling gutting key provisions of the Voting Rights Act to efforts in many red states to enact voter ID laws that critics say target minority voters inclined to vote Democratic.
In the Texas case, two voters challenged the way Texas draws state senate districts, arguing that they count for less in calculating those boundaries than ineligible voters used to assess total population numbers -- whether noncitizens, children or even felons. Conservative groups aligned with the challenge, arguing in Supreme Court briefs that the current system distorts the rights of nonvoters in the democratic process, particularly in states such as California, Texas and Florida, where larger numbers of noncitizens are counted in those census figures.
In a statement Monday, the group challenging the Texas system said they were "disappointed" in the ruling, adding that "the issue of voter equality in the United States is not going away."
A three-judge federal court panel in Austin had rejected the two voters' claim, and election law experts were surprised last year when the high court agreed to take the case.
Civil rights groups and 22 states, including California, warned the Supreme Court of dire consequences if the current method is altered, arguing that politicians represent all people, not just those who vote. Critics of the Texas challenge, including the Democratic National Committee, suggest the case is a thinly veiled part of Republican efforts to undercut minority voting numbers.
In large part, the critics are banking on the Supreme Court's own words in a key 1964 ruling that upheld the one-person, one vote concept by saying "legislators represent people, not trees or acres."
"Conservative and liberal justices joined together to recognize that apportioning state legislative districts by total population honors the Constitution's text and history, and rejected this ideologically driven challenge to one of America's most revered practices," said Elizabeth Wydra, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center.
Despite the undercurrent of issues related to immigration and noncitizens, these groups note that other nonvoting blocs, notably children, tend to be represented heavily in census numbers in large urban areas and would lose protections if the system changed. Several cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, sided with Texas in the case, saying that relying on only eligible voters "would make the nation's cities and large urban areas the losers."
The Obama administration backed the current system, saying it is the only practical and constitutional way to draw political boundaries.
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz.