Yesterday, the GOP’s own Frankenstein Monster, the U.S. Supreme Court, again turned on its maker. In a 5-4 ruling, the SCOTUS affirmed the right of voters to appoint independent panels for drawing electoral district lines.  This is very bad news for partisan lawmakers, but great news for the rest of us.  The ruling is a serious blow to one of the key strategies that the GOP has been using to keep its death-grip on citizen rights, and to enhance their personal and corporate wallets.

For decades it has been the plan of the GOP to focus their money, lobbyists, and efforts on state government. Through the use of gerrymandering they have been able to gain extraordinary state control over policy, judicial appointments, and laws. As long as the U.S. Supreme Court did not allow federal interests to stop their state monopolies, they had virtually everything they really wanted. The only reason for their federal involvement and White House aspirations was to prevent federal interference with their illicit state actions. Over the past week, the Supreme Court has made it clear that it believes the GOP has gone too far, and they are stepping in on behalf of the American public.

So what is Gerrymandering, and why was yesterday’s Court ruling so historic?

Simply put, “gerrymandering” is the practice of drawing electoral maps in a convoluted manner so as to give an artificial demographic advantage to one party or another. The term originated in 1812. Massachusetts Democratic-Republicans, who then controlled the state legislature and the governorship, were facing a difficult election against the Federalists. Under Governor Elbridge Gerry, election district lines in contentious Essex County were redrawn to favor the party in power. To a political cartoonist at the time, the new district looked like a salamander. Shortly thereafter, an unknown pundit named the creature in dubious honor of the governor, dubbing it a “gerrymander.” Although Gerry lost the election, the Democratic-Republicans retained their hold on the Massachusetts legislature.

Today, the SCOTUS took power away from state legislatures to draw these boundaries and gave voters the chance to appoint independent, non-partisan committees to do the job. The case (Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission) was about a plan that voters in the Grand Canyon State approved in 2000, creating the commission. Not surprisingly, state Republicans filed a challenge. Their argument was based on the Elections clause of the U.S. Constitution, which says: “Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof” (Article I, Section 4).

To Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, it all depends on the definition of the word “legislature.” At some point, Republican royalists and fascists forgot what the phrase “government of the people, by the people and for the people” actually means. Legislators are elected by, and serve at the pleasure of the electorate. They are only proxies for the people who vote them in and can just as easily vote them out. It’s a hard fact of life for those who would prefer to rule rather than serve – and one of which they are acutely aware. Hence, the practice of gerrymandering.

Justice Ginsberg, in writing the majority opinion, defines “legislature” as “the power that makes laws” – in other words, We, The People. Obviously, the Framers of the Constitution had no idea what a “voter referendum” or “initiative” was, as these concepts did not exist in 1787, when the document was created. However, they would have understood that it’s the citizens who ultimately establish law – not their elected representatives.  Justice Ginsberg writes:

Absent congressional authorization, does the Elections Clause preclude the people of Arizona from creating a commission operating independently of the state legislature to establish congressional districts? The history and purpose of the Clause weigh heavily against such preclusion, as does the animating principle of our Constitution that the people themselves are the originating source of all the powers of government.

This is a huge step towards restoring our democracy. Arizona is only one state in which voters have had enough of gerrymandering. Similar laws have been enacted or are pending in several other states. Thanks to yesterday’s SCOTUS decision, the GOP faces the loss of yet one more weapon to wield in its failed quest to create Karl Rove’s “permanent Republican majority.”

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.