Meet The Lawyer Arguing Against Partisan Gerrymandering Before the Supreme Court

Mar 25, 2019
Originally published on March 25, 2019 5:38 pm
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Tomorrow the Supreme Court will hear a case that could affect the makeup of Congress. It's over partisan redistricting, or gerrymandering. The question at issue is whether politicians can draw district lines to benefit their party. Arguing against partisan gerrymandering is a lawyer with some special experience on the topic. Johnny Kauffman of member station WABE in Atlanta has the story.

JOHNNY KAUFFMAN, BYLINE: Emmet Jopling Bondurant II was a student at the University of Georgia in the late '50s. He knew about the civil rights movement then but did not join it.

EMMET JOPLING BONDURANT II: I was trying to get through college (laughter). And I'm embarrassed to say I was not involved.

KAUFFMAN: But as a law student, Bondurant got frustrated by the segregationists who dominated Georgia politics. Urban populations had grown a lot, but politicians weren't adjusting the U.S. House districts. Doug Smith is a historian who wrote a book about the issue.

DOUG SMITH: I can't imagine any state legislature ever just forgetting, not getting around to redistricting. I think it was absolutely a political choice.

KAUFFMAN: Districts in rural areas often had much smaller populations than urban ones. Smith says in states where people of color could vote, the scheme tended to give them less political power.

SMITH: You had a rural minority that was able to pass labor laws that were not favorable to workers in the cities.

KAUFFMAN: Emmet Bondurant worked on a lawsuit asking the courts to force states to draw new districts with equal populations. It eventually went to the Supreme Court. Bondurant spent his nights and weekends working on the case for free.

BONDURANT II: You were working with the 1960 census and a legal pad and a pencil and dividing things up and then adding and multiplying and so forth. And if you made a mistake in one area, it affected everything you'd done like a series of dominoes.

KAUFFMAN: Bondurant was 26 when he argued before the Supreme Court and Chief Justice Earl Warren.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUPREME COURT HEARING)

EARL WARREN: James P. Wesberry Jr. et al, appellants, v. Carl E. Sanders et al. Mr. Buderein (ph).

BONDURANT II: Mr. Chief Justice...

WARREN: Warren didn't pronounce Bondurant's name correctly, but the young lawyer just kept going.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUPREME COURT HEARING)

BONDURANT II: The right to equal, popular representation...

KAUFFMAN: Bondurant's side won the case before the Supreme Court in the '60s. In states with more than one U.S. representative, House districts must have the same population. Now, 55 years later, he's set to argue before the Supreme Court again. This time, Bondurant is asking the court to block partisan redistricting in North Carolina. Although the state is closely divided politically, the Legislature ensured that Republicans would dominate the congressional delegation. Bondurant sees a link between this latest case and the one he argued in the early '60s.

BONDURANT II: They did not want the districts changed. They did not want new competition. They wanted the old voters they already had. That is one form of gerrymandering.

KAUFFMAN: Although he's had plenty of corporate clients, Bondurant has always stayed active in civil rights law. In 2012, he stepped in to help a small group that was registering new citizens to vote but having trouble with the state of Georgia. The group's head, Helen Kim Ho, contacted Bondurant. And pretty soon, the state backed off.

HELEN KIM HO: What you want is a lawyer who is angry and willing to be a bulldog for you.

KAUFFMAN: Bondurant is now 82. He has no plans to retire or give up. And Bondurant says he'll keep trying to heal what he calls democracy's self-inflicted wounds.

BONDURANT II: I'd rather spend my time doing that than playing golf, in part because I play golf so badly that the opportunity not to play is, itself, a positive. But this is really important stuff, and it's very fundamental.

KAUFFMAN: For NPR News, I'm Johnny Kauffman in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.