Wisconsin’s attorneys found themselves grilled throughout oral arguments in Gill v. Whitford, the partisan gerrymandering case being heard by the Supreme Court. Several justices hit the Wisconsin legal team with questions that may telegraph a majority of the court seems ready to impose constitutional limits on political redistricting.
But the barrage of academic and otherwise abstract questions launched by Justice Kennedy and others paled in comparison to the moment that Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked a very simple inquiry that cut right to the heart of the matter. She asked: “Could you tell me what the value is to democracy from political gerrymandering? How does that help our system of government?”
(The Roberts Court. Seated, from left to right: Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Anthony M. Kennedy, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen G. Breyer. Standing, from left to right: Justices Eleana Kagan, Samuel A. Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, and Neil M. Gorsuch. Photograph by Franz Jantzen, Supreme Court Curator’s Office)
This is in keeping with Sotomayor’s style. She does not get lost in a sea of constitutional technicality or pedantry. Sotomayor’s simplistic style has been subject to criticism by those who find her style, well, a little too simple. But her Gestalt view makes her effective. On Tuesday, Erin E. Murphy, the attorney representing Wisconsin’s State Senate, had no good answer for Sotomayor’s direct question about citing any democratic benefit to political gerrymandering. Murphy replied, “I don’t think that … districting for partisan advantage has no positive values. She added, “I would point you to, for instance, Justice Breyer’s dissenting opinion in [2004’s Vieth v. Jubelirer] which has an extensive discussion of how it can actually do good things for our system to have districts drawn in a way that makes it easier for voters to understand who … the legislature is. It produces values in terms of accountability that are valuable so that the people understand who isn’t and who is in power.”
Sotomayor responded, “I really don’t understand what that means.”
Notice that phrasing. If you’re a lawyer representing a state senate in a constitutional manner and you’ve given a wordy response only to be told that that your answer was not understood by a Supreme Court Justice — this should not be counted as a victory — particularly when your answer included citation of a prior dissenting opinion.
Thoughts and prayers, Erin E. Murphy. Thoughts and prayers.