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Supreme Court decisions could affect makeup of Congress for years

Redistricting, census questions among big-ticket items left on docket

The Supreme Court will issue decisions in the next two weeks that could have lasting effects on congressional representation. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The Supreme Court will issue decisions in the next two weeks that could have lasting effects on congressional representation. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Supreme Court faces decisions during its last two weeks of the term that could influence congressional districts for the next decade and make the justices an even larger topic in the 2020 presidential campaign.

The court left its most consequential and politically contentious opinions for the end of the term, as it tends to do every year. The justices on Monday will release some of the 24 decisions yet to come before the end of June.

During that same period, the justices will announce which additional cases it will hear next term, which could include challenges to the Trump administration decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and whether the socially contentious LGBT rights issue about whether bakers who claim religious objections can refuse to make cakes for same-sex weddings.

If they hear those cases, the decisions would likely be released before the end of June 2020, at the height of the presidential campaign.

Every end of the term feels consequential, but this term is different from many in one key way. It comes just ahead of the 2020 census and the ensuing redistricting process based on the census results that states use to draw congressional maps — which in turn will affect the partisan makeup of the House and potentially which party is in control of the chamber.

“I think when all is said and done, we’re going to look back at this two-week period as a pretty significant period in the current court’s history,” University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck said. “The tricky part is we don’t yet know what it’s going to look like.”

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In one case, the Supreme Court will decide whether judges can rein in politicians who draw congressional maps to entrench a partisan advantage. In another, the justices will say whether the Trump administration can add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census.

The decision in the partisan gerrymandering challenges from North Carolina and Maryland will determine the future of maps in those states. But judges in Ohio and Michigan have also struck down congressional maps in cases that are on hold to see how the high court rules on the issue.

The Supreme Court’s conservative majority, during oral arguments in April, appeared ready to allow the Trump administration to add the census citizenship question even though it would undercount immigrants. But newly uncovered evidence about why Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross added the question has dolloped intrigue on top of that case.

Civil rights groups challenging the citizenship question made the unusual request for the Supreme Court to delay their ruling to let a lower court consider that new evidence. The groups say the documents show an ulterior motive of using the data from the citizenship question to favor Republicans by drawing maps based only on citizen population.

That came as the House Oversight and Reform Committee voted to hold Attorney General William Barr and Ross in contempt of Congress. Democrats argued the pair defied subpoenas in a probe of the addition of the citizenship question.

While legal experts say there is little chance of the court granting such a delay, the decision will likely fuel questions in the presidential campaign about whether the court is too political. The groups played on that in their request.

“The decennial census is one of the United States government’s most important constitutional responsibilities, and even an appearance that the government has manipulated the census for partisan and racially discriminatory purposes would undermine public confidence in our representative democracy,” the groups wrote. “This court should not bless the secretary’s decision on this tainted record, under a shadow that the truth will later come to light.”

At least three Democratic presidential candidates — Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg — have backed proposals to overhaul the way justices are nominated to make it less partisan.

President Donald Trump made Supreme Court nominations a major part of his 2016 campaign. Democratic candidates are poised to do the same in 2020, as cases are working their way toward the court on abortion rights and the 2010 health care law.

The Supreme Court next term could also need to weigh in on the legal fights between the Trump administration and House Democrats when it comes to congressional subpoenas and appropriations for construction of a barrier on the U.S.-Mexico border.

While those issues are farther off, the justices appear poised to act on the DACA program as soon as Monday.

Four district courts prevented the Trump administration from ending the DACA program, starting with a California court in January 2018. The Justice Department has asked the Supreme Court to decide the issue quickly.

After months of delay, the justices added the cases at a closed-door conference Thursday, meaning they could announce what they will do at any time.

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