The Supreme Court, again avoiding one of the thorniest of political issues, Monday turned down an appeal by California Republicans who sought to overturn the state’s controversial federal legislative districts.
With only two dissenting votes, the high court said that it was dismissing the appeal “for want of jurisdiction.” Lawyers on both sides were not sure what that meant, except that the majority of the justices did not want to hear the case.
The result almost certainly leaves intact until after the 1990 Census the district boundaries that have given the Democrats a solid 27-18 majority among the state’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives. It will be up to the Legislature and the governor after the census to decide how to redraw them.
Monday’s brief order also leaves uncertain whether the Supreme Court, which has traditionally ducked the issue, will ever decide whether partisan gerrymandering can be so unfair as to be unconstitutional.
Lawyers for the Republicans said they thought that California was as good a case as they could get. The oddly shaped congressional districts drawn by the late Rep. Phillip Burton (D-San Francisco) were intended to bunch Republican voters in a small number of districts and put Democratic voters in the majority in as many districts as possible.
Burton’s plan worked. The Democrats’ edge in California House seats, just 22 to 21 in the 1980 elections, shot up to 28 to 17 in the 1982 elections with the addition of two new House seats for the state.
In that same 1982 election, California’s voters passed a referendum overturning the new district boundaries. The Democratic-controlled state Legislature then slightly revised the boundaries in time for outgoing Democratic Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. to sign them into law just hours before he was succeeded by Republican George Deukmejian.
Those boundaries remain in force, and the Democrats continue to hold a 27-18 advantage among California’s representatives in Congress.
In June, 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for the first time that political gerrymandering could be contested in federal court as a violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws.
But the court did not spell out a clear standard. Justice Byron R. White’s majority opinion said only that a redistricting that “consistently degrades a voter’s or a group of voters’ influence on the political process as a whole” would be illegal.
California Republicans, using that precedent, went to federal court to challenge California’s district boundaries. But in April of this year, a three-judge district court panel in San Francisco flatly dismissed their suit.
The GOP is not “shut out . . . of the political process as a whole” in California, reasoned Judge Cecil Poole, because the governor is a Republican, one of two senators is a Republican and the Republicans “still hold 40% of the congressional seats.”
Judge Robert Schnacke, dissenting from the ruling, promised to file a written dissent--but has not. Lawyers for the Democrats contended in a brief to the high court that the ruling was not final and not appealable to the Supreme Court until the dissent was filed.
Only Justices White and John Paul Stevens dissented from Monday’s order dismissing the Republican appeal (Badham vs. Eu, 87-1818).
“Obviously we’re disappointed,” said James Parrinello, a lawyer representing the Republicans. “But we don’t view this as meaning the case is over.” He said that a pending appeal to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals could yield another result.
Lowell Finley, a lawyer for the Democrats, disagreed. “As a practical matter, the case is over,” he said. “The Republicans are not a disadvantaged political force in California. They are fully and adequately represented, and there is no need for the Supreme Court to intervene.”
In another action on a California case, the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal of a decision involving enforcement of the state’s antitrust laws.
California Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp has pushed for aggressive enforcement, but a federal appeals court undercut his effort in May when it ruled that the state could not win damages from a price fixer with whom it dealt only indirectly. The case involved price-fixing cement makers who sold their products to road builders who had contracts with the state.
Other States Join In
Three other states joined California in urging the high court to reverse the appeals court and to let indirect purchasers attack price fixing (California vs. ARC America Corp., 87-1862).
The justices also rejected without comment the state’s appeal of a ruling giving the federal government the right to take water from streams flowing through federal lands. State officials contended that they must agree before water could be taken out of a stream in the Plumas National Forest in Lassen County. But the state Supreme Court disagreed and ruled for the federal government (California vs. U.S., 87-2010).