Beyond partisanship? : federal courts, state commissions, and redistricting

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McKenzie, Mark Jonathan

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My dissertation examines the influence of partisanship in decision making on redistricting in state commissions and judicial rulings. My central questions are twofold. First, do Republican- and Democratic-appointed federal judges engage in decision making that favors their respective parties? Second, what is the extent of partisan voting on bipartisan state redistricting commissions? These issues possess considerable substantive importance. Some states have considered moving redistricting responsibility out of the legislature and into state commissions, while some political scientists and legal scholars have suggested more vigorous court involvement in the regulation of redistricting. Implicit in many of these arguments is the assumption that federal courts and state commissions will act as neutral arbiters. But, very little social science research exists on the behavior of these institutions. My investigation combines quantitative and qualitative evidence, using interviews I conducted of federal judges and redistricting commissioners across the country, together with statistical analyses of court decisions and commission votes. I have 138 court cases from 1981 to 2006, totaling 414 observations or judicial votes. I argue that federal judges are neither neutral arbiters nor partisan maximizers. Rather, federal judges act as constrained partisans. Judges do not necessarily favor their own party's plans in court cases anymore than they do plans created by both parties under divided government. But, when a federal judge reviews a redistricting plan drawn up by a different party, and where the judge's own party is the victim of partisan line-drawing, she will be more attuned to issues of unfairness in the process. Under circumstances where Supreme Court precedent is unclear, partisan cues become more salient for the judge, increasing the probability she will rely on partisan influences to declare the plan invalid. Interestingly enough, these partisan effects in judicial voting vanish in cases where the Supreme Court delineates unambiguous rules, such as litigation concerning 1 person 1 vote equal population claims. My analysis of state redistricting commissions, based on the votes of commissioners and in-depth interviews with them, illustrates that commissions, like courts, are also not immune to partisan decision-making. Partisan factors tend to be the overriding concern of commissioners.