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SALMAGUNDI: Fair map reformers turn eyes to SCOTUS

Can a political map drawn to favor one political party be so severe as to be deemed unconstitutional?

Hopefully we’ll have an answer soon, as the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to issue opinions on two potentially pivotal cases in the longstanding fight against gerrymandering: Lamone v. Benisek, a Maryland case challenging Democrat-drawn maps; and Rucho v. Common Cause, which comes from North Carolina and questions boundaries Republicans established.

The makeup of the Supreme Court is key. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who retired at the end of the court’s session last summer, was considered a swing vote on the issue, waffling between the liberal thought that gerrymandered maps infringe on constitutionally protected voting rights and the conservative approach that political maps are a political issue, not something for the justice system.

According to the New York Times, it was Kennedy who in 2004 rejected four other justices who found it impossible to ascertain at what point a political map becomes unacceptably partisan.

“That no such standard has emerged in this case should not be taken to prove that none will emerge in the future,” he wrote.

Last summer, in the Wisconsin case Gill v. Whitford, Justice Elena Kagan’s concurring opinion gave hope to people looking for the court to push back on partisan maps.

“Over 50 years age, we committed to providing judicial review in the redistricting arena, because we understood that ‘a denial of constitutionally protected rights demands judicial protection,’ ” she wrote, also noting “politicians incentives conflict with voters’ interests, leaving citizens without a political remedy for their constitutional harms. … I am hopeful we will then step up to our responsibility to vindicate the Constitution against a contrary law."

Timing is key. After the 2020 Census comes a new nationwide cycle of drawing boundaries for Congressional races along with state legislatures. States have broad power to establish their own election laws, and some may enact tighter restrictions than what the Supreme Court dictates.

Illinois Democrats won’t willingly cede cartography privileges. Former Gov. Bruce Rauner tried to enact change but failed, which is a different kind of disappointing than his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, who was a reformer until he accidentally became governor and quietly signed Michael Madigan’s maps.

As a candidate, current Gov. JB Pritzker tweeted “I 100% oppose gerrymandering. Legislative districts should adhere to both the Federal and Illinois Voting Rights Acts, and I support redistricting reform that advances fairness and removes politics from the process.” He also once pledge to veto any map “drafted or created by legislators, political party leaders and/or their staffs or allies.”

Neither statement has been tested, but it’s unlikely any Supreme Court opinion will give Pritzker an escape hatch.

THIS DAY IN HISTORY … I wouldn’t expect the majority of readers to know about the June Days Uprising, a four-day protest by workers in Paris 171 years ago, and even those who do might not know about its larger significance in the world of mass media. But on this day in 1848, a photographer named Thibault took a picture of barricades in Rue Saint-Maur-Popincourt. The image was published as an engraving in the July 1-8 edition of l’Illustration, and is widely considered the first example of photojournalism.

My sincere hope is that readers of The Times appreciate the fortune to support a paper of this size that employs a journalist of the quality of Tom Sistak. After winning Times Employee of the Year honors in 2017, the notoriously deferential shutterbug realized he’d have to be interviewed for an article in the paper (Times trivia: yours truly snapped the accompanying photo), and in so doing was characteristically decorous about his own mastery.

“I like getting out every day, seeing new people and experiencing new things,” he said.

His writer and designer colleagues have been blessed by the way he captures his experiences, and our Managing Editor Tammie Sloup praised him with words that bear repeating.

“Even the casual reader can see how his eye for photos strengthens our product,” Sloup said. “When he’s on assignment, he’s not looking to finish as quickly as possible — he’s looking for the best photo. He’s been instrumental in challenging reporters and editors to see stories through art as well as words, and he sets the bar high day in and day out.”

It’s never been an easy job, but Sistak’s durability and consistency in an age when quality photojournalism is increasingly an afterthought provide an invaluable service to everyone associated with our newspaper.

SCOTT T. HOLLAND is a former associate editor of The Times who continues to contribute his column plus help with editing and writing. He can be reached at newsroom@mywebtimes.com, facebook.com/salmagundi or twitter.com/sth749. 

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