George Will

WASHINGTON -- Last July 1, Sandra Day O'Connor announced her decision to vacate the seat from which she frequently operated as the swing vote on a Supreme Court divided 5-4 on important cases. Anthony Kennedy's past pronouncements suggested he would relish that role. Last Wednesday he played it in cases concerning Texas redistricting.

The cases involved several questions, the most interesting -- because it has come to the court before and we now know it will again, and because it revealed a recurring and worrisome kind of judging -- was this: Was the redistricting by the Republican-controlled Legislature such a partisan gerrymander as to be somehow unconstitutional?

The court's dusty answer to this question is symptomatic of the difference-splitting that characterized the last years of the Rehnquist court. In a plurality opinion, Kennedy said there may be a ``manageable, reliable measure of fairness'' in redistricting, but no set of facts has sufficed for the court to discover it.

Antonin Scalia believes it is delusional to think that such a standard can be anything other than judges' cumulative hunches -- not a neutral principle found in the Constitution. Joined by Clarence Thomas, Scalia on Wednesday said that no one ``has put forth a judicially discernable standard'' for deciding when a gerrymander is too partisan. The Kennedy position allows people to continue trying to concoct a constitutional violation (of the guarantee of equal protection of the laws), even though the court provides no guidance to lower-court judges. Scalia and Thomas believe redistricting is a ``political thicket'' (Justice Felix Frankfurter's phrase) courts should not enter.

By leaving open the possibility that there is a constitutional answer to the question of what constitutes a ``too political'' gerrymander -- the position seems to be: we don't know what the standard is, but we don't know that it doesn't exist -- the court has again practiced ``split-the-difference jurisprudence.'' That phrase is from Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, writing in the Stanford Law Review.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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