WASHINGTON - The way state legislatures draw election districts for political gain is coming to dominate the Supreme Court's docket.
The justices agreed Friday to hear two cases challenging congressional and state legislative districts in Texas, adding them to ones already pending from Wisconsin and Maryland. Other cases are brewing in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
The Texas lawsuits involve more traditional challenges to the use of race in drawing district lines, something the high court deals with perennially from states with a history of violating the 1968 Voting Rights Act. By contrast, the Wisconsin and Maryland cases allege excessive political gerrymandering -- designing districts to benefit one party over the other.
The Texas dispute dates back to 2011, when the GOP-dominated legislature created new congressional and state legislative districts to help Republicans, even though the growth in the state's population was almost entirely attributable to minorities who more often vote Democratic.
A three-judge district court panel ruled last year that some national and state districts were drawn to discriminate against blacks and Hispanics, but it refused to call them political gerrymanders. Texas asked the Supreme Court to overrule the racial verdict, while the state Democratic Party sought to reverse the ruling on political claims.
The justices did not agree to hear the partisan gerrymandering case. But the Wisconsin and Maryland cases already give them an opportunity to do something they have never done: strike down election districts because of politics, rather than race.
They are a balanced pair: Wisconsin's lines were drawn by Republicans who dominate the state legislature, while Maryland's were drawn by Democrats. A victory for challengers in either case could place other states' districts in jeopardy as well.
Wisconsin Democrats are challenging the entire statewide map of state Assembly districts based in part on the Constitution's equal protection clause. Maryland Republicans are challenging a single Democratic congressional district based on voters' freedom of speech.
And earlier this week, a federal court panel struck down North Carolina's congressional maps as politically tainted, sending that case headed toward the high court as well. Lawyers for the state on Friday asked the justices to block the ruling for the 2018 election cycle.
Every 10 years in most states, the method of drawing district lines for Congress and state legislatures are changed by the party in power. If that power is shared — or, in a few states including California, if the process is governed by a commission — the lines might be drawn fairly.
More often, lawmakers use computer software programs that have vastly improved the art of line-drawing for partisan advantage. Republicans, in particular, seized on the process in 2012 after gaining nearly 700 seats in state legislatures two years earlier. That gave them control of both houses in 25 states.
The Supreme Court has ruled on multiple occasions that race cannot be a major factor in the way lines are drawn, but it has yet to set a standard for how much politics is too much.
The Wisconsin case has generated the most attention all year. While the state is considered a battleground in national and statewide elections, Republicans designed state Assembly districts that have given them a nearly 2-to-1 edge in seats.
A federal district court ruled last year that those districts discriminated against Democratic voters "by impeding their ability to translate their votes into legislative seats." It demanded that the legislature draw new district lines by this November, but the Supreme Court blocked that requirement while it considers the state's appeal.
Oral argument in the case was heard in October, when the justices appeared divided over the issue. The key vote probably belongs to Justice Anthony Kennedy, who appeared open to the challengers' contention that the lines went too far politically.
But Kennedy may be even more impressed by challengers' arguments in Maryland that are based on the free speech rights of voters to have their views heard. That case, along with the one from Texas, is likely to be heard this spring and decided by June.
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