Washington (AFP) - The US Supreme Court on Monday upheld the principle of setting legislative districts based on total population, unanimously rejecting a conservative challenge that would have disadvantaged urban areas with large Hispanic populations.
The court ruled that the "one person, one vote" rule allows counting non-voters, including minors, prisoners, ex-convicts and immigrants -- a decision that traditionally helps Democrats.
"We hold, based on constitutional history, this court's decisions, and longstanding practice, that a state may draw its legislative districts based on total population," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote in delivering the court's opinion.
The plaintiffs -- Sue Evenwel and Edward Pfenninger -- argued that Texas should count only eligible voters in drawing up legislative districts of roughly equal size.
That would have favored rural areas with a high proportion of eligible voters in the allocation of legislative districts, over urban areas with larger absolute populations but a smaller proportion of eligible voters.
Since urban areas tend to vote Democratic and rural areas lean Republican, how the population is counted has a direct political impact.
If a state bases its electoral districting on the total population -- and all 50 states do -- people who are ineligible to vote are counted in the process.
These ineligible populations, such as non-citizen Hispanic immigrants, are usually present in larger numbers in urban areas.
As a result, each eligible voter in those areas proportionally has greater clout.
"Even so, it remains beyond doubt that the principle of representational equality figured prominently in the decision to count people, whether or not they qualify as voters," the court said.
"Adopting voter-eligible apportionment as constitutional command would upset a well-functioning approach to districting that all 50 states and countless local jurisdictions have followed for decades, even centuries. Appellants have shown no reason for the court to disturb this longstanding use of total population," the court added.
- Unanimous decision -
The justices heard oral arguments in the case in December before the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia on February 13, which has left the court evenly divided between liberals and conservatives.
But even before Scalia's death, the justices had expressed skepticism about the challenge to the Texas law, which was borne out by the unanimous decision.
Had the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, legislative districts would have had to have been redrawn in states from New York to California.
Civil rights leaders and minority groups backed the status quo, arguing a change would negatively impact Hispanics.
"Our representatives represent people," said Nina Perales of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
"Representatives don't represent land. They don't represent acres. They don't represent counties."
The NAACP civil rights group said that 75 million children, 13 million of whom are black, "would have been counted out of the redistricting process" since children cannot vote.
The case, it said, harked back "to nefarious periods in our democracy similar to when black people were counted as 3/5ths of a person for redistricting purposes."
Meanwhile Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders chimed in from the campaign trail in support of the decision.
"In our democracy, every one of our voices should count. Glad the Supreme Court affirmed this fundamental right," Clinton tweeted.
- 'Significant leeway' -
Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito were part of the majority, but wrote separate concurring opinions.
Alito, while agreeing with the majority, rejected the government's argument that there is a constitutional basis for requiring that legislative districts be equal in total population.
In a similar vein, Thomas noted that the court's decision did not provide clear guidance on what exactly "the one person, one vote" principle protects.
"The Constitution does not prescribe any one basis for apportionment within states. It instead leaves states significant leeway in apportioning their own districts to equalize total population, to equalize eligible voters, or to promote any other principle consistent with a republican form of government.
"The majority should recognize the futility of choosing only one of these options. The Constitution leaves the choice to the people alone -— not to this court," he wrote.