In Peterson v. Borst (2003),  the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the Marion County Superior Court had acted inappropriately when it selected a partisan redistricting map to settle an Indianapolis CITY-COUNTY COUNCIL dispute. The Supreme Court’s ruling, and subsequent creation of its own map without consideration of partisan results, established a new and active role for the state judiciary in redistricting cases. In its decision, the Court also committed courts to the principle of political neutrality when considering district maps.

In 2002, a Democratic mayor of Indianapolis sat on the majority-Republican City-County Council for the first time since Marion County and Indianapolis city governments had merged into Unigov in 1970. In October, Mayor Bart Peterson vetoed a new district map for the City-County Council. Republican council members, objecting to Peterson’s action, pointed out that no statute required the mayor’s approval of redistricting maps. Republican members had drawn the map, and the council had voted to approve the new district boundaries. Peterson, along with other Democrats on the council, argued that the districts were too dissimilar in size and population. They protested that district lines strategically zigzagged through the city to give the Republicans an electoral advantage. The map would have favored Republicans in 16 of the 25 districts. Republican council majority Leader Philip C. Borst openly acknowledged the new partisan edge and argued that redistricting necessarily produced unusually shaped districts.

In response to Peterson’s veto, Republicans asked the Marion Superior Court to resolve the stalemate. On a party-line vote, the Republican-controlled Superior Court adopted the Republican map, though the judges admonished the council for its inability to decide the issue itself. Council Democrats protested the ruling. They pointed out that the court could not serve as a neutral party since one of the judges was a brother of a Republican councilman. On a Democratic appeal, the case went to the Indiana Supreme Court.

In March 2003, the Supreme Court rejected the Republican-drawn map. Rather than decide if the map was effective or judicious, the judges instead ruled on “whether the Superior Court violated its duty of neutrality by adopting a redistricting plan developed by one political party.” For fear of violating judicial independence, the court refused to adopt a partisan map. The process of apportionment, the justices held, should not favor one party or the other. The court argued that judges should reject any plan “that seeks to change the ground rules” in order to increase a party’s electoral advantage. A court’s responsibility was to create a map “with both the appearance and fact of scrupulous neutrality,” paying heed only to legal requirements.

The Supreme Court ordered the council to draw a new map. If it did not create a suitably bipartisan map within a week’s time, the council would be forced to accept a court-created plan. After a week, with no counter-proposal from the council, the court’s plan became official.

The Republicans, led by Borst, protested the decision and the new map. Borst argued that the Supreme Court’s map discriminated against minority voters because the number of minority-majority districts decreased from seven to three. Such a result, Borst said, “subjects Marion County to the very real possibility of a successful [Federal] Voting Rights Act suit” because the dispersal of minority voters across districts would dilute their votes. Since Indianapolis was 24 percent Black, Borst argued, each district should attempt to achieve a similar ratio. 

The Supreme Court justices were not persuaded. They rejected Borst’s premise and argued that they had not considered racial or political factors. Rather, the justices “utilized only the statutory factors of compactness, equality of population, and adherence to precinct boundaries.” Furthermore, the justices did not find evidence that Indianapolis’s white population formed a sufficiently coherent bloc to significantly outvote African American residents.

Revised April 2021

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