One of the remarkable things about the U.S. Supreme Court’s Monday ruling on a Texas legislative redistricting case — other than that it was a unanimous decision from a rarely unified court — was the conservative nature of its reasoning.
The eight justices (the high court is minus one member after Antonin Scalia’s death in February) let stand a Texas practice of drawing legislative voting districts based on total population.
Plaintiffs Sue Evenwel of Mount Pleasant and Edward Pfenninger of Montgomery County north of Houston argued that only eligible voters should be counted, not children, noncitizen immigrants and others who cannot vote.
Here’s the conservative part: In her opinion for the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that what we’re doing now is what we have been doing for a long time, everybody does it this way, it works well, so why change it?
In her words: “Settled practice confirms what constitutional history and prior decisions strongly suggest. Adopting voter-eligible apportionment as constitutional command would upset a well-functioning approach to districting that all 50 states and countless local jurisdictions have followed for decades, even centuries.”
And, as if to punctuate the point: “Appellants have shown no reason for the Court to disturb this longstanding use of total population.”
The ruling was seen as a win for immigrants and minorities — and thus, for Democrats — and people in large urban areas.
Cities tend to have large populations of minorities, children and immigrants. Because voting districts must be drawn with roughly equal numbers according to the “one person, one vote” principle, urban areas have more districts.
Evenwel and Pfenninger argued that voters in districts with larger proportions of nonvoters have more clout than those that are crowded with voters. It’s not constitutional, they said, for one person’s vote to carry more weight than another’s.
But speaking of the Constitution, the one place that founding document addresses the issue is for the drawing of districts for members of the U.S. House. Those districts, the Constitution says, must be based on total population, not eligible voters as Evenwel and Pfenninger would have it.
Still, the Supreme Court justices did not say that Texas or any other state couldn’t use the eligible-voter standard for drawing districts. They just said Texas is not wrong in how it does things now.
It’s important that the total-population method recognizes that everyone, voter or not, is entitled to representation by elected officials.