Toward the end of the Supreme Court’s argument in Gill v. Whitford, about the future of partisan gerrymandering, there was a revealing moment about the place of the newest Justice in the esteem of at least one of his peers. In less than a year, Neil Gorsuch has dominated oral arguments, lectured his colleagues, and given dubiously appropriate public speeches. Questioning Paul Smith, the lawyer challenging Wisconsin’s contorted district lines, Gorsuch made another pedantic gesture.
The argument had gone on for nearly an hour when Gorsuch began a question as follows: “Maybe we can just for a second talk about the arcane matter of the Constitution.” There was a rich subtext to this query. Originalists and textualists such as Gorsuch, and his predecessor on the Court, Antonin Scalia, often criticize their colleagues for inventing rights that are not found in the nation’s founding document. Gorsuch’s statement that the Court should spare “a second” for the “arcane” subject of the document was thus a slap at his ideological adversaries; of course, they, too, believe that they are interpreting the Constitution, but, in Gorsuch’s view, only he cares about the document itself.
Gorsuch went on to give his colleagues a civics lecture about the text of the Constitution. “And where exactly do we get authority to revise state legislative lines? When the Constitution authorizes the federal government to step in on state legislative matters, it’s pretty clear—if you look at the Fifteenth Amendment, you look at the Nineteenth Amendment, the Twenty-sixth Amendment, and even the Fourteenth Amendment, Section 2.” In other words, Gorsuch was saying, why should the Court involve itself in the subject of redistricting at all—didn’t the Constitution fail to give the Court the authority to do so?
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is bent with age, can sometimes look disengaged or even sleepy during arguments, and she had that droopy look today as well. But, in this moment, she heard Gorsuch very clearly, and she didn’t even raise her head before offering a brisk and convincing dismissal. In her still Brooklyn-flecked drawl, she grumbled, “Where did ‘one person, one vote’ come from?” There might have been an audible woothat echoed through the courtroom. (Ginsburg’s comment seemed to silence Gorsuch for the rest of the arguments.)
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