Uncertainty for midterms after Supreme Court acts in key redistricting cases

PHOTO: Holding up a sign representing a Texas district, Shirley Connuck, right, waits outsides the Supreme Court as a case on possible partisan gerrymandering by state legislatures is heard, Oct. 3, 2017.PlayTom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images, FILE
WATCH Primaries in Southern states shed light on midterms

With midterm elections only months away, the Supreme Court weighed in Monday on two high-stakes racial and partisan redistricting cases that could have significant implications for the electoral process this cycle.

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As Americans head to the polls this fall, the congressional maps will help determine the makeup of Congress and how voters choose their representatives in Congress. But the court's decisions this term haven’t done much to clarify the constitutionality of gerrymandering or the maps that result.

The justices have either punted cases or invalidated lower court decisions, keeping the current maps in place and leaving the future of how congressional districts in the U.S are drawn uncertain.

"The decision to halt the drawing of maps during the appeals process has a huge impact," Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, told ABC News. "The challenge in redistricting cases is oftentimes by the time you get a decision, you are well into the election cycle."

"It incentivizes gerrymanderers to see what they can get away with because you draw really aggressive maps and you get to use them for two, three, now four election cycles," he added.

PHOTO: Principals and protesters stand outside the Supreme Court while the Justices hear arguments on gerrymandering, Oct. 3, 2017 in Washington, D.C.The Washington Post via Getty Images, FILE
Principals and protesters stand outside the Supreme Court while the Justices hear arguments on gerrymandering, Oct. 3, 2017 in Washington, D.C.

But Li suggests that the "number one" tactic to create partisan bias, regardless of party or affiliation, is to target "communities of color."

"There is an increasing intersection between race and politics," he said. "What you've seen in places like North Carolina and Texas is states that have attempted to discriminate against minority voters in part to create a political advantage, and thus far, you've only been able to police that through claims that are rooted in race allegations of racial discrimination because the Court hasn't clearly put partisan gerrymandering out of bounds."

In one of the latest redistricting cases, the Supreme Court Monday upheld Texas' congressional map, reversing a lower court's ruling that had struck it down as racially discriminatory. The court found in Abbott v. Perez that only one congressional district was drawn in a way considered a racial gerrymander.

"When the congressional and state legislative districts are reviewed under the proper legal standards, all but one of them, we conclude, are lawful," Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the conservative majority.

"Except with respect to one Texas House district, we hold that the court below erred in effectively enjoining the use of the districting maps adopted by the Legislature in 2013," he added.

PHOTO: Visitors depart the Supreme Court early Monday, June 25, 2018.J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Visitors depart the Supreme Court early Monday, June 25, 2018.

Texas Republicans applauded the decision as a "victory for the rule of law," while Democrats chided the "rigged maps" in the state.

"The Supreme Court's decision in Abbott v. Perez is a victory for the rule of law," Guy Harrison, Senior Adviser to the National Republican Redistricting Trust. "The Constitution gives state legislatures the power to draw their election districts. Not federal or state courts. The Supreme Court should now take Turzai v. Brandt and overturn an unprecedented power grab by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania."

"In a blatant attempt to build more political power in Texas, Republicans in the state legislature created unfair districts," Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee Executive Director Jessica Post. "Voting is a fundamental tenet of our democracy. Democrats must come together to thwart any efforts to silence the will of voters or render their votes meaningless through rigged maps. We will continue to work with the National Democratic Redistricting Committee and all our partners to do all we can to ensure fairer maps in Texas and across the country."

Also on Monday, the conservative-leaning court remanded the partisan redistricting case of Rucho v. Common Cause, centered on a heavily Republican congressional map in North Carolina. The lower court had nullified the current congressional map, but in January, the justices put a hold on that ruling, and on Monday sent the case back in the wake of their recent decision in a Wisconsin redistricting case. The current map in North Carolina will likely stand through the midterms.

That decision in the Wisconsin case, Gill v. Whitford, was issued on June 25 and stated that the plaintiffs — Wisconsin Democratic voters who hinged their case on partisan redistricting — did not show standing to challenge the state’s congressional map.

ABC News' Stephanie Ebbs contributed to this report.

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