Tag: bias

Federal Courts Barred from Reviewing Partisan Gerrymandering (SCOTUS)

On 27 June 2019, the US Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, in the case of Rucho v. Common Cause, No. 18-422, 588 U.S. (2019), that partisan gerrymandering was not regulated by the US Constitution. The Court ruled that federal Courts had no jurisdiction to hear challenges to unfairly drawn electoral districts, leaving State Courts as the only possible adjudicator. The case illustrates two opposing visions for the nature of the judicial power – one limited (the conservative Majority) and one expansive (the liberal Minority).

The case involved two separate allegations of partisan gerrymandering. The first concerned North Carolina’s congressional districts, which favoured the Republican Party, while the second concerned Maryland’s congressional districts, which favoured the Democratic Party. In both cases, there was undisputed evidence that districts had been in fact drawn to favour one political party at the expense of the other. Challengers in both cases argued that using partisan considerations to draw electoral districts violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the First Amendment as well as Article I of the US Constitution.

Writing for the Majority, Chief Justice Roberts, joined by the remaining four conservatives, held that the issue of partisan gerrymandering was non-justiciable, i.e., not suitable for judicial review. In doing so, the Majority started with tracing the origins of partisan gerrymandering back to the foundation era when Patrick Henry was accused of creating unfair Congressional districts in Virginia to prevent the election of James Madison to the very first Congress (p8). Based on this historical approach, Chief Justice Roberts concluded that when the Constitution was being drafted, “at no point was there a suggestion that the federal courts had a role to play [in respect of partisan gerrymandering]. Nor was there any indication that the Framers had ever heard of courts doing such a thing” (p11).

Then, the Majority analysed existing precedents concerning the shape and contents of electoral districts. It was held that the issue of partisan gerrymandering must be distinguished from the malapportionment of districts, which had been declared contrary to Article I of the US Constitution under the ‘one person, one vote’ doctrine (Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1 (1964)) and from racial gerrymandering which had been declared contrary to the Fifteenth Amendment (Gomillion v. Lightfoot, 364 U.S. 339 (1960)) (pp11-12). It was claimed that “the one-person, one-vote rule is relatively easy to administer as a matter of math. The same cannot be said of partisan gerrymandering claims...” (p20). Furthermore, “unlike partisan gerrymandering claims, a racial gerrymandering claim does not ask for a fair share of political power and influence… It asks instead for the elimination of a racial classification. A partisan gerrymandering claim cannot ask for the elimination of partisanship” (p21). The Majority argued that unlike in relation to the malapportionment or racial gerrymandering, there was no constitutional basis for challenges based on a partisan bias. In fact, it was said that “to hold that legislators cannot take partisan interests into account when drawing district lines would essentially countermand the Framers’ decision to entrust districting to political entities.” (p12).

At that point, the Majority turned to the question of standard of review applicable in potential partisan gerrymandering cases. The central question considered was “how to ‘provid[e] a standard for deciding how much partisan dominance is too much’?” (per League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry548 U.S. 399 (2006) at 420) (p15). Chief Justice Roberts claimed that “partisan gerrymandering claims rest on an instinct that groups with a certain level of political support should enjoy a commensurate level of political power and influence” and, therefore, they “invariably sound in a desire for proportional representation” (p16). However, the Chief Justice rejected such a premise as absent from the US Constitution as well as from the early political life of the Republic where “many States elected their congressional representatives through at-large or ‘general ticket’ elections” (p16). In the absence of the requirement of proportional representation, partisan gerrymandering cases would require federal Courts to rule on the basis of nothing more than fairness. However, “federal courts are not equipped to apportion political power as a matter of fairness, nor is there any basis for concluding that they were authorized to do so.” (p17)

At the end, the Majority pointed to State Courts as the only possible adjudicators of partisan gerrymandering claims. This solution requires, however, that States’ Constitutions provide some form of basis for such a judicial intervention. This could be illustrated by the case of League of Women Voters of Florida v. Detzner, 172 So. 3d 363 (2015) where the Supreme Court of Florida struck down a State’s congressional districting plan on the grounds that it violated the Fair Districts Amendment to the Florida Constitution (p31). In the absence of relevant provisions in States’ Constitutions, citizens must seek redress with State legislatures.

Justice Kegan, writing for the four liberal dissenters, focused on the harm caused by partisan gerrymandering and announced that the Court abdicated its obligation to guard the US Constitution. The Dissent argued that “partisan gerrymandering operates through vote dilution—the devaluation of one citizen’s vote as compared to others” and, consequently, “that practice implicates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause” (p11). Furthermore, it was claimed that “partisan gerrymandering implicates the First Amendment too…” because it “…subject[s] certain voters to “disfavored treatment”—again, counting their votes for less—
precisely because of ‘their voting history [and] their expression of political views‘” (per Vieth v. Jubelirer541 U.S. 267 (2004) at 314) (p12). Addressing the Majority’s concern over the lack of any workable standard of review, the Dissent put forward their own suggestions, most of which had already been employed by lower Courts. Finally, responding to the Majority’s suggestion that proper redress lies with State Courts and State legislatures, the Dissent argued that precisely because of partisan gerrymandering, members of State institutions would not be interested in rectifying a partisan skew which helped them get elected in the first place.

It is clear that both the conservative Majority and the liberal Minority in Rucho v. Common Cause, No. 18-422, 588 U.S. (2019) accepted evidence of existing partisan gerrymandering practices. They also both accepted that such practices caused a lot of harm to the US political system. They even both accepted that something should be done about it. Where the two groups differed was not the issue of partisan gerrymandering, but the question of the nature of the judicial power. The conservative Majority took a limited view of the judicial power. They looked for any constitutional provision which would expressly apply to partisan gerrymandering. Having been unable to find it, they concluded that the Court had no jurisdiction to outlaw such practices. They relied on legendary Chief Justice Marshall who laid foundations of what was understood by the judicial power: “it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is” (p34). Based on this, the Majority believed that it was also their place “to say ‘this is not law'”, even in the face of dire consequences brought by partisan gerrymandering.

On the other hand, the liberal Minority took a typically more expansive view of the judicial power. The judiciary was there to safeguard the Constitution and the Constitution set up a certain political system. If this political system was threatened, then the Constitution should be interpreted in a way that allowed a judicial intervention in its defence. While the Majority was looking for a basis for the intervention, the Minority was primarily concerned with the potential consequences of the failure to intervene. They believed that “of all times to abandon the Court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one. The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the Court’s role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections” (p33). It is this divergence of the Majority’s and Minority’s views on the nature of the judicial power that resulted in this case being decided 5-4, along the ideological lines.

US Supreme Court Combats Racial Bias in Juries

On 21 June 2019, the US Supreme Court ruled 7-2, in the case of Flowers v. Mississippi, No. 17–9572, 588 U.S. (2019), that a persistent use of peremptory challenges to remove black jurors during a series of trials against Curtis Flowers violated his rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment as explained in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). The only African-American on the bench, Justice Thomas, dissented.

Curtis Flowers was accused of four murders in a furniture store in Winona, Mississippi in 1996. Altogether, he had six separate jury trials. The first three ended with convictions which were later overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct. During these, no African-American sat on the jury despite the fact that the population distribution near Winona was approximately 50% African-American. Next two ended with a mistrial due to hung juries. The sixth trial was held in 2010. During the voir dire procedure proceeding the trial, the prosecution used peremptory challenges to dismiss five African-American jurors, leaving only one African-American on the jury. This trial ended with a conviction and the death sentence. Flowers appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court arguing that the use of peremptory challenges to dismiss African-American jurors violated his rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment as explained in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). The conviction was upheld and Flowers petitioned the US Supreme Court to hear his case.

Peremptory challenges allow attorneys from both sides to dismiss potential jurors during the voir dire procedure proceeding a trial without stating a reason. Usually, both side have a certain number of such strikes which varies form one State to another. Peremptory challenges come on top of challenges for cause which allow attorneys to dismiss any number of jurors suspected of bias. In Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), the US Supreme Court ruled that the prosecutor could not use peremptory challenges to exclude jurors based solely on their race as this practice violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

The Majority opinion in Flowers v. Mississippi, No. 17–9572, 588 U.S. (2019), written by Justice Kavanaugh, and joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan and Chief Justice Roberts, pointed to “four critical facts, [which] taken together, require reversal“:

“First, in the six trials combined, the State employed its peremptory challenges to strike 41 of the 42 black prospective jurors that it could have struck—a statistic that the State acknowledged at oral argument in this Court… Second, in the most recent trial, the sixth trial, the State exercised peremptory strikes against five of the six black prospective jurors. Third, at the sixth trial, in an apparent effort to find pretextual reasons to strike black prospective jurors, the State engaged in dramatically disparate questioning of black and white prospective jurors. Fourth, the State then struck at least one black prospective juror, Carolyn Wright, who was similarly situated to white prospective jurors who were not struck by the State.” [pp2-3]

As to the importance of each fact, the Court held that:

“We need not and do not decide that any one of those four facts alone would require reversal. All that we need to decide, and all that we do decide, is that all of the relevant facts and circumstances taken together establish that the trial court committed clear error in concluding that the State’s peremptory strike of black prospective juror Carolyn Wright was not “motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent.”  [p3]

In issuing its verdict, the Court felt that it was not doing anything beyond applying the holding of Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986):

In reaching that conclusion, we break no new legal ground. We simply enforce and reinforce Batson by applying it to the extraordinary facts of this case.” [p3]

The Majority opinion also briefly analysed the historical relationship between the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and the right to serve in juries. This included, apart from the 14th Amendment itself, the judgment in the Slaughter-House Cases, 16 Wall. 36, 71 (1873), the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and the judgments in Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U. S. 303 (1880)Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U. S. 483 (1954) and Swain v. Alabama, 380 U. S. 202 (1965).

Then, the Majority opinion summarised the main principles established by Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986):

“First, the Batson Court rejected Swain’s insistence that a defendant demonstrate a history of racially discriminatory strikes in order to make out a claim of race discrimination…
Second, the Batson Court rejected Swain’s statement that a prosecutor could strike a black juror based on an assumption or belief that the black juror would favor a black defendant…
Third, the Batson Court did not accept the argument that race-based peremptories should be permissible because black, white, Asian, and Hispanic defendants and jurors were all “equally” subject to race-based discrimination…
Fourth, the Batson Court did not accept the argument that race-based peremptories are permissible because both the prosecution and defense could employ them in any individual case and in essence balance things out…” [pp13-15]

The Court also listed the types of evidence which could be relied on by the Defendant when bringing a Batson challenge: 

  • “statistical evidence about the prosecutor’s use of peremptory strikes against black prospective jurors as compared to white prospective jurors in the case;
  • evidence of a prosecutor’s disparate questioning and investigation of black and white prospective jurors in the case;
  • side-by-side comparisons of black prospective jurors who were struck and white prospective jurors who were not struck in the case;
  • a prosecutor’s misrepresentations of the record when defending the strikes during the Batson hearing;
  • relevant history of the State’s peremptory strikes in past cases; or
  • other relevant circumstances that bear upon the issue of racial discrimination.” [pp16-17]

Based on the history of Flowers’s case and the holding in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), the Majority opinion held that the prosecution had not given sufficient race-neutral reasons to justify the exclusion of the five African-American jurors during Flowers’s 6th and final trial. This led the Court to conclude that his rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment were violated and the conviction had to be reversed.

Interestingly, Justice Thomas, the only African-American on the bench, dissented arguing that the Court “almost entirely ignores—and certainly does not refute—the race-neutral reasons given by the State for striking [five] black prospective jurors” in Flowers’s final trial [p2]. Justice Thomas claims that the Court “never should have taken this case” because it did not present any real question of law and the Court only wanted to “reconsider the factual findings of the state courts” [p4]. He also points to a bigger picture – the Majority opinion in Flowers v. Mississippi, No. 17–9572, 588 U.S. (2019), and its effect on Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), will make it “impossible to exercise a peremptory strike that cannot be challenged by the opposing party, thereby requiring a ‘neutral’ explanation for the strike. But requiring an explanation is inconsistent with the very nature of peremptory strikes.” [p40].

Justice Thomas finishes his Dissenting opinion with his own views on peremptory challenges:

In sum, as other Members of this Court have recognized, Batson charted the course for eliminating peremptory strikes… Although those Justices welcomed the prospect, I do not. The peremptory system ‘has always been held essential to the fairness of trial by jury’.” [p40]

It seems that Flowers v. Mississippi, No. 17–9572, 588 U.S. (2019) was as much about a racial bias in the jury selection as it was about the nature and place of peremptory challenges in today’s criminal justice system.