COLUMBIA — Claims of partisan gerrymandering should be hashed out through the political process rather than in federal courts, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday, a decision that effectively leaves South Carolina's status quo in place.
In a 5-4 ruling, the court's more conservative justices determined that even if the legislative districting process seems "unjust," it would be inappropriate for federal courts to weigh in on the issue.
"Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.
The ruling means the Republican-dominated South Carolina Legislature will again be tasked with drawing new district maps following the 2020 census, now with the knowledge that the possibility of judicial intervention has been substantially limited.
Some lawmakers have proposed creating an independent commission to draw the new legislative district lines every 10 years. But those efforts have gone nowhere.
The high court's decision was met with anger from some South Carolina Democrats and voting rights activists.
Lynn Teague, vice president of issues and action at the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, called the ruling "catastrophic."
"This is about the fundamental right to vote having any meaning, and they have abdicated responsibility for that," Teague said.
"I see no way under the constitution that you can justify the federal government having no role in making sure that a vote is, in fact, meaningful," she said.
But S.C. GOP chairman Drew McKissick said he agreed with the court's majority opinion, arguing Democrats are trying to "win in court because they can't win at the ballot box."
"Unlike what liberals suggest, politics does not have a place in the courtroom," McKissick said. "Today's ruling is a clear win for constitutionalism and keeping the judiciary out of politics, and politics out of the judiciary."
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Elena Kagan chided the court's majority for declining to step in.
"For the first time ever, this court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities," Kagan wrote.
S.C. House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, said he was not surprised by the decision given the court's current makeup but was disappointed.
"It makes it more difficult for citizens in this country to have fair representation in the legislative branch," Rutherford said.
Contrary to the idea that the ruling benefits one party or another, Rutherford said that now if Democrats ever take control of South Carolina government then they too "can tilt the playing field so that Republicans can never have a fair shot."
"That's not what the legislative process is supposed to be about," Rutherford said.
Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who served in the Obama administration, recently came to Columbia as part of a tour through early-voting presidential primary states designed to raise the profile of the redistricting issue.
Teague said the League of Women Voters and affiliated groups would "ramp up" their efforts to engage the public on redistricting following the ruling and continue to press for a nonpartisan independent commission.
"Nothing will help until the public gets behind us and realizes their votes are being taken away from them," Teague said. "The only way at the moment to end that is to put a lot of pressure on your state House and Senate members and tell them you're totally tired of this and are not going to tolerate it."
The decision was released on the court's final day of decisions before a summer break. It has no effect on racial gerrymandering challenges. Courts have barred redistricting aimed at reducing the political representation of racial minorities for a half-century.
Federal courts in five states concluded that redistricting plans put in place under one party's control could go too far and that there were ways to identify and manage excessively partisan districts. Those courts included 15 federal judges appointed by Republican and Democratic presidents reaching back to Jimmy Carter.
But the five majority Republican-appointed justices decided otherwise Thursday.
The decision effectively reverses the outcome of rulings in Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina and Ohio, where courts had ordered new maps drawn, and ends proceedings in Wisconsin, where a retrial was supposed to take place this summer after the Supreme Court last year threw out a decision on procedural grounds.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.