In gerrymander case, Supreme Court takes on long history of brazen political self-dealing

Gerrymandering, the practice of drawing self-serving political boundaries, is as old as the country itself. Its impetus, one could argue, is even older and deeper-seated, grounded in the fundamentals of human nature.

In the zero-sum game of campaigns and elections, where you either win or lose, gerrymandering is a way to stack the deck and improve the odds by sorting people into districts based on how they are expected to vote — in what, up to now, has been perfectly legal fashion.

By agreeing to hear a landmark case challenging the drawing of strongly partisan boundaries in Wisconsin, the U.S. Supreme Court indicated Monday that it will consider whether, finally, enough is enough.

If the court, which takes up the case in the fall, rules that partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional — a very big if, experts say — it could drastically change the country’s politics by injecting much greater competition into races for Congress and for statehouses nationwide.

Such a decision probably would also spawn years, if not decades, of further litigation, spurring politicians in the meantime to find ever more clever ways of skewing contests for partisan advantage.

“Drawing fair districts is a little like drawing a fair tax plan,” said Justin Levitt, a constitutional scholar at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “A lot of people have very different ideas what those should look like at the end of the day.”

Some, for instance, think it’s perfectly legitimate and beneficial to group communities of interest — say, Latinos or city dwellers or workers concentrated in the high-tech industry. Others desire geographical compactness or a strict adherence to county or municipal lines.

Up to now, if there has been a set of principles that guides the political line-drawing process, they are: Maximize your political advantage. Do whatever you can get away with.

“Most politicians, if they have the opportunity,…

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