What's unusual about this week's ruling against partisan gerrymandering in Michigan is not that judges ruled a map unconstitutional; courts in four other states have struck down legislative districts for violating the political rights of the party out of power.
What's really extraordinary is that a bipartisan group of federal judges all but begged the Supreme Court to limit overly partisan cartography nationwide – something the justices are currently contemplating.
"Federal courts must not abdicate their responsibility to protect American voters from this unconstitutional and pernicious practice that undermines our democracy," wrote the three judges who struck down much of Michigan's congressional and state legislative boundaries, asserting that judicial inability to protect voters' rights "will only increase the citizenry's growing disenchantment with, and disillusionment in, our democracy."
The judges, two nominated by Bill Clinton and the other by George Bush, then underscored that message with this unmistakable appeal to the high court: "Judges — and justices — must act in accordance with their obligation to vindicate the constitutional rights of those harmed by partisan gerrymandering."
The Supreme Court is expected to decide in June whether the drawing of legislative maps can ever by unconstitutionally poisoned by partisan motive – and, if so, what the limits of the practice should be. Those cases involve a Maryland map designed by the Democrats to assure the GOP wins only one of the eight House seats, and a North Carolina map drawn by Republicans to minimize Democrats' chances of winning more than three of the 13 districts in a tossup state.
Michigan is also a purple bellwether on the national political map, but Republicans ran this latest redistricting to give their candidates an opportunity to dominate the congressional delegation and the state legislature, which has happened through most of the decade. Thursday's ruling said all the maps violated two parts of the Constitution: the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection, by creating "districts that were intentionally drawn to ensure a particular outcome in each district," and the First Amendment's right to freedom of association, by effectively punishing Democrats for their views by placing them in districts where their side could never win.
"The evidence points only to one conclusion: partisan considerations played a central role in every aspect of the redistricting process," the judges wrote in ordering new maps to be drawn by August – a demand that Michigan may need to follow only if the Supreme Court comes to a similar conclusion in the two cases it is considering.