The 550,000 voters in Salt Lake County, Utah’s most populous, handed Joseph R. Biden Jr. an 11-percentage point victory over Donald Trump in the 2020 contest for president. A year later, in November 2021, the state’s Republican-controlled legislature drew a new political map that carved up the county, putting pieces of it in each of the state’s four congressional districts — and ensuring that Republican voters would outnumber Democrats in all of them.
On Tuesday, the Utah Supreme Court will consider whether to wade into the increasingly pitched nationwide battle over partisan gerrymanders. The justices will decide whether the state’s courts can hear a lawsuit challenging the House map, or whether partisan maps are a political issue beyond their jurisdiction.
The U.S. Supreme Court considered the same question in 2019 and decided that the maps were beyond its purview. But voting rights advocates say Utah’s Constitution offers a stronger case than the federal one for reining in political maps.
“There’s a very clear provision in the State Constitution that says all power is inherent in the people, and that they have the right to alter and reform their government,” said Mark Gaber, a lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington-based advocacy group representing the plaintiffs. He said other relevant provisions in the State Constitution, but absent from the federal Constitution, include guarantees of free elections and the right to vote.
State Senator Scott D. Sandall, Republican co-chair of the State Legislature redistricting committee that drew the House map, did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
In court filings, legislators said that the State Constitution gave them exclusive authority to draw political maps, and that the plaintiffs were trying to impose “illusory standards of political equality” on the mapmaking process.
Though Utah is a conservative state, no one argues that four Republican-dominated districts are inevitable. “If you just draw a very compact circle around the middle of Salt Lake County, you’re going to get a Democratic district,” Mr. Gaber said.
Rather, the central issue in the case is whether Republican legislators had a constitutional right to maintain their party’s monopoly on the four seats through a map that was beyond the purview of judges to review.
The Utah case could have national implications — not merely for the political balance in the closely divided U.S. House of Representatives but also for the emerging body of legal precedents that influence how courts rule in other states.
With the Supreme Court removing the federal courts from deciding partisan gerrymander cases, state courts are becoming a crucial battleground for opponents of skewed maps. Joshua A. Douglas, an expert on state constitution protections for voting at the University of Kentucky, said the growing body of legal precedents in state gerrymandering cases was important because many state constitutions share similar protections for elections and voters, often derived from one another.
Courts in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Alaska, New York and, last week, New Mexico have ruled that partisan gerrymanders can be unconstitutional. So have courts in Ohio and North Carolina. However, the Ohio court proved unable to force the Legislature to comply with its rulings, and the North Carolina decision was overturned in April after elections shifted the court’s partisan balance from Democratic to Republican.
The Kentucky Supreme Court will hear a challenge to that state’s congressional and legislative maps in September. And a lawsuit contesting an extreme Republican gerrymander of the Wisconsin Legislature is widely expected after an April election gave progressives a majority on the state’s high court.
Perhaps the closest analogy to the Utah gerrymander is in Nashville, where the Republican-run state legislature’s latest congressional map divided the city’s onetime Democratic-majority House district among three heavily Republican districts. Democrats have not challenged the map in state courts, presumably because they see little prospect of winning in a Supreme Court dominated by Republican appointees.
In Utah’s case, however, the State Supreme Court’s five justices do not have reputations for bending easily to political winds. They are chosen through a merit-based selection process.
The Utah plaintiffs — the state chapter of the League of Women Voters; the advocacy group Mormon Women for Ethical Government and a handful of Utah voters — accuse the State Legislature not just of illegally gerrymandering the state’s congressional map but of ignoring voters’ explicit instructions not to do so.
The State Constitution allows voters to enact new laws, and to repeal ones that the Legislature enacted, through ballot initiatives. In 2018, voters narrowly approved a law outlawing maps that were unduly skewed to favor a candidate or party, and allowing voters to enforce that mandate through lawsuits. The Legislature later repealed that law and then drew the congressional map that quartered Salt Lake County.
Plaintiffs in the suit argue that the repeal violated a provision in the State Constitution stating that citizens “have the right to alter or reform their government as the public welfare may require.” And they say that the gerrymandered map ignores a host of state constitutional provisions, including guarantees of free speech, free association and equal protection — provisions that they say should be read to prohibit partisan maps.
For their part, Republican legislators contend that they had the right to repeal the redistricting law, just as they can any other state law. And they say the plaintiffs’ aim is no different than their own: to tilt the playing field in their favor.
Katie Wright, the executive director of Better Boundaries — the grass-roots group that led the successful effort to pass the 2018 redistricting law and is backing the lawsuit — said there is a difference between the two. She noted that the Legislature’s disclosure of its new maps in 2021 sparked an unusually large public outcry that continues even today.
“The reason we have these maps is to keep the people who are in power in power,” she said. “Utahns have not given up.”