Supreme Court to hear major gerrymandering case on Wisconsin electoral map

WASHINGTON, June 19 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed decide whether electoral maps drawn deliberately to favor a particular political party are acceptable under the Constitution in a case that could have huge consequences for American elections in the future.

The justices will take up Wisconsin's appeal of a lower court ruling last November that state Republican lawmakers violated the Constitution when they created state legislative districts with the partisan aim of hobbling Democrats in legislative races.

The case will be one of the biggest heard by the Supreme Court during its term that begins in October.

The lower court ruled that the Republican-led legislature's redrawing of state legislative districts in 2011 amounted to "an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander," a term meaning manipulating electoral boundaries for an unfair political advantage.

RELATED: A look at the current Supreme Court justices

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John Roberts, Chief Justice

Born: 1955

Joined Supreme Court: 2005

Appointed by: George W. Bush

Votes: Conservative

US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is followed by Elena Kagan on her way to take the Judicial Oath to become the 112th US Supreme Court justice, in Washington on August 7, 2010. (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Born: 1933

Joined Supreme Court: 1993

Appointed by: Bill Clinton

Votes: Liberal

(Photo by Dennis Brack/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Anthony Kennedy

Born: 1936

Joined Supreme Court: 1988

Appointed by: Ronald Reagan

Votes: Conservative/Center

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy listens to opening statements during a Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Clarence Thomas

Born: 1948

Joined Supreme Court: 1991

Appointed by: George H.W. Bush

Votes: Conservative

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas testifies during a hearing before the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee April 15, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Stephen Breyer

Born: 1938

Joined Supreme Court: 1994

Appointed by: Bill Clinton

Votes: Liberal/Center

United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer speaks at the Harvard University Institute of Politics John F. Kennedy School of Government John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on November 6, 2015 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images)

Samuel Alito

Born: 1950

Joined Supreme Court: 2006

Appointed by: George W. Bush

Votes: Conservative

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito speaks during the Georgetown University Law Center's third annual Dean's Lecture to the Graduating Class in the Hart Auditorium in McDonough Hall February 23, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Sonia Sotomayor

Born: 1954

Joined Supreme Court: 2009

Appointed by: Barack Obama

Votes: Liberal

Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the United States Sonia Sotomayor discusses her book 'My Beloved World' presented in association with Books and Books at Bank United Center on February 1, 2013 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Vallery Jean/FilmMagic)

Elena Kagan

Born: 1960

Joined Supreme Court: 2010

Appointed by: Barack Obama

Votes: Liberal

Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Elena Kagan speaks onstage at the FORTUNE Most Powerful Women Summit on October 16, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for FORTUNE)
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A panel of three federal judges in Madison ruled 2-1 that the way the Republicans redrew the districts violated the U.S. Constitution's guarantees of equal protection under the law and free speech by undercutting the ability of Democratic voters to turn their votes into seats in Wisconsin's legislature.

The Supreme Court has been willing to invalidate state electoral maps on the grounds of racial discrimination, as it did on May 22 when it found that Republican legislators in North Carolina had drawn two electoral districts to diminish the statewide political clout of black voters.

But the justices have not thrown out state electoral maps drawn simply to give one party an advantage over another.

A Supreme Court ruling faulting the Wisconsin redistricting plan could have far-reaching consequences for the redrawing of electoral districts due after the 2020 U.S. census. State and federal legislative district boundaries are reconfigured every decade after the census so that each one holds about same number of people.

"I am thrilled the Supreme Court has granted our request to review the redistricting decision and that Wisconsin will have an opportunity to defend its redistricting process," Wisconsin Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel said.

"As I have said before, our redistricting process was entirely lawful and constitutional, and the district court should be reversed," Schimel added.

The case in the short term could affect congressional maps in about half a dozen states and legislative maps in about 10 states, before having major implications for the post-2020 redistricting, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.

'POLITICS GOING HAYWIRE'

"Wisconsin's gerrymander was one of the most aggressive of the decade, locking in a large and implausibly stable majority for Republicans in what is otherwise a battleground state," said redistricting expert Thomas Wolf of the Brennan Center. "It's a symptom of politics going haywire and something that we increasingly see when one party has sole control of the redistricting process."

Under the Wisconsin redistricting plan, Republicans were able to amplify their voting power, gaining more seats than their percentage of the statewide vote would suggest. For example, in 2012, the Republican Party received about 49 percent of the vote but won 60 of the 99 seats in the state Assembly. In 2014, the party garnered 52 percent of the vote and 63 state Assembly seats.

After winning control of the state legislature in 2010, Wisconsin Republicans redraw the statewide electoral map and approved the redistricting plan in 2011.

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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas stands in his chambers at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst SEARCH "SCOTUS" FOR THIS STORY. THE IMAGES SHOULD ONLY BE USED TOGETHER WITH THE STORY - NO STAND-ALONE USES. IMAGE FOR USE AND PUBLICATION ONLY AS PART OF REUTERS SUPREME COURT "Marble, drape and justice: inside the U.S. Supreme Court" PHOTO ESSAY UNTIL AFTER OCTOBER 1, 2017.
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People hold umbrellas on a rainy day at the plaza by the Supreme Court in Washington, U.S. November 10, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy delivers a lecture for visiting international attorneys in the West Conference Room at the Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
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The courtroom of the U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington, U.S. April 4, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
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A dozen Wisconsin Democratic Party voters filed suit in 2015 against state election officials over the redistricting, saying the Republican-backed plan divided Democratic voters in some areas and packed them in others in order to dilute their electoral clout and benefit Republican candidates.

After a trial last year, the district court panel agreed, invalidating the restricting plan statewide. It said redistricting efforts are unlawful partisan gerrymandering when they seek to entrench the party in power, and have no other legitimate justification.

The court ordered a redrawing of political districts be in place by Nov. 1 of this year, in time for the next state election in Wisconsin in 2018.

The state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the recent Wisconsin election results favoring Republicans "is a reflection of Wisconsin's natural political geography" with Democrats concentrated in urban areas like Milwaukee and Madison. (Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

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