The 550,000 voters in Salt Lake County, Utah’s most populous, gave Joseph R. Biden Jr. 11 percentage point win over Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential race. A year later, in November 2021, the state’s Republican-controlled legislature drew a new political map that sliced up the district, putting pieces of it in each of the state’s four congressional districts — and ensuring that Republican voters would outnumber Democrats in all of them.
On Tuesday, the Utah Supreme Court will consider whether to wade into the increasingly bitter nationwide battle over partisan gerrymandering. The justices will decide whether the state courts can hear a lawsuit challenging the House map, or whether partisan maps are a political matter outside their jurisdiction.
The US Supreme Court considered the same question in 2019 and decided that the maps were outside its jurisdiction. But voting rights advocates say the Utah Constitution offers a stronger case than the federal one for curbing political maps.
“There is a very clear provision in the State Constitution that says that all power is inherent in the people, and that they have the right to change and reform their government,” said Mark Gaber, an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center. advocacy group representing the plaintiffs. He said that other relevant provisions in the State Constitution, but absent from the federal Constitution, include guarantees of free elections and the right to vote.
State Sen. Scott D. Sandall, Republican co-chairman of the State Legislature’s redistricting committee that drew the House map, did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
In court filings, lawmakers said the state Constitution gave them exclusive authority to draw political maps, and that the plaintiffs were trying to impose “illusory standards of political equality” on the map-making process.
Although Utah is a conservative state, no one argues that four Republican-dominated districts are inevitable. “If you just draw a very compact circle around the middle of Salt Lake County, you’re going to get a Democratic district,” Mr. Gaber said.
Rather, the central issue in the case is whether Republican lawmakers had a constitutional right to maintain their party’s monopoly on the four seats through a map that was beyond the judges’ purview to review.
The Utah case could have national implications — not only for the political balance in the closely divided US House of Representatives but also for the emerging body of legal precedents that influence how courts rule in other states.
With the Supreme Court removing the federal courts from deciding partisan gerrymander cases, state courts are becoming a crucial battleground for opponents of skewed maps. Joshua A. Douglas, an expert on state constitutional protections for voting at the University of Kentucky, said the growing body of legal precedent in state gerrymandering cases was important because many state constitutions share similar protections for elections and voters, often derived from one another.
Courts in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Alaska, New York and, last week, New Mexico ruled that partisan gerrymanders can be unconstitutional. So have courts in Ohio and North Carolina. However, the Ohio court proved unable to compel the legislature to abide by its rulings, and the North Carolina decision was overturned in April after elections shifted the court’s partisan balance from Democratic to Republican.
The Kentucky Supreme Court will hear a challenge to the congressional and legislative maps of that state in September. And a lawsuit against an extreme Republican gentry of the Wisconsin Legislature is widely expected after an April election gave progressives a majority on the state’s high court.
Perhaps the closest analogy to the Utah gerrymander is in Nashville, where the latest congressional map from the Republican-controlled state legislature split the city’s former Democratic-majority House district between three heavily Republican districts. Democrats have not challenged the map in state courts, presumably because they see little prospect of winning in a Supreme Court dominated by Republican appointees.
In Utah’s case, however, the five justices of the State Supreme Court do not have a reputation for easily bending to political winds. They are selected through a merit-based selection process.
The Utah plaintiffs – the state chapter of the League of Women Voters; the activist group Mormon Women for Ethical Government and a handful of Utah voters – accuse the State Legislature not only of illegally gerrymandering the state’s congressional map but of ignoring voters’ express instructions not to do so.
The State Constitution allows voters to enact new laws, and to repeal those enacted by the Legislature, through ballot measures. In 2018, voters narrowly approved a law banning maps that were unduly distorted to favor a candidate or party, and allowing voters to enforce that mandate through lawsuits. The legislature later repealed that law and then drew the congressional map that quartered Salt Lake County.
Plaintiffs in the suit are arguing that the repeal violated a provision in the State Constitution declaring that citizens “have the right to alter or reform their government as the public welfare may require.” And they say the gerrymandered map ignores a host of state constitutional provisions, including guarantees of free speech, free association and equal protection — provisions they say should be read to prohibit partisan maps.
For his part, Republican lawmakers are arguing that they had the right to repeal the redistricting law, just as they can any other state law. And they say the plaintiffs’ goal is no different than their own: to tilt the playing field in their favor.
Katie Wright, the managing director of Better Limits — the grassroots group that led the successful effort to pass the 2018 redistricting law and supports the lawsuit — said there is a difference between the two. She noted that the unveiling of her new 2021 Parliament maps sparked an unusually large public outcry that continues even today.
“The reason we have these maps is to keep the people in power,” she said. “Utanians didn’t give up.”