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Photo: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images

The Supreme Court this week will wade back into a fundamental question about American democracy: whether partisan gerrymandering can ever go too far.

The big picture: State lawmakers have gotten a lot more sophisticated and a lot more aggressive about redrawing their state’s legislative districts to help their party stay in power.

  • "I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats. So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country," the architect of North Carolina’s 2016 redistricting process said. His plan is now before the high court.

Driving the news: The justices will hear two hours of oral arguments Tuesday: one hour about North Carolina’s map and one hour about a Democratic-led gerrymander in Maryland. Rulings are expected in June.

Why it matters: Critics say extreme partisan gerrymandering undermines the basic premise that each person’s vote counts equally.

  • In North Carolina, for example, Republicans won 53% of the popular vote in 2016, yet ended up controlling 77% of the seats in the state legislature — the exact breakdown they were aiming for when they drew their map.

The other side: The most interesting debate here isn't partisan, but rather a divide between voting-rights advocates and conservatives who argue that redistricting is a quintessentially political process and the courts should stay out.

Where it stands: The Supreme Court has never struck down a partisan gerrymander. It has never said a state legislature crossed the line in trying to secure a partisan advantage — in fact, it has never even said whether there’s a line to cross.

  • Then-Justice Anthony Kennedy seemed poised to draw such a line during the court's last term, but ultimately punted ahead of his retirement.
  • Chief Justice John Roberts, who has become the court’s ideological center in Kennedy’s absence, seemed concerned last time around about wading into a political process.

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