Can the Supreme Court Fix American Politics?

Yet even though the Supreme Court has said a political gerrymander may be so extreme that it violates the Constitution, it has never struck one down because the justices have not been able to agree on how much partisanship in map drawing is too much, or even how to measure it.

If any case could convince them that it’s time to step in and find a solution fast, it’s the one they’re hearing on Tuesday: Gill v. Whitford, a lawsuit out of Wisconsin that offers a stark lesson in just how distorted the map-drawing process has become in an era of sophisticated mapping technology and intense political polarization.

In 2010, Republicans won unified control of Wisconsin’s government for the first time in years. They were determined not to lose it anytime soon, so they turned the decennial redistricting process, which began in 2011, into a clandestine partisan operation. They set up a “map room” at a Republican-allied law firm, used refined data analyses to draw new, Republican-friendly district lines, and invited only Republican lawmakers to come in and see their new districts — after they signed nondisclosure agreements.

It worked. In 2012, the first election using the new maps, Republican candidates won 48 percent of the vote, but 60 of the state’s 99 legislative seats. The Democrats’ 51 percent that year translated into only 39 seats, yet two years later, when the Republicans won the same share of the vote, they ended up with 63 seats — a 24-seat differential. In other words, Republicans had figured out how to draw maps to lock in their legislative majority no matter how many, or few, votes they received.

This is the opposite of how democracy is supposed to work, as a Federal District Court in Wisconsin found in striking down the maps last year under both the First and 14th Amendments. It was beyond doubt, the court held, that the new maps were “designed to make it more difficult for Democrats, compared to…

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