Tag: vote

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.

Former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Announces She Has Dementia (SCOTUS)

On 23 October 2018, former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced she had dementia (SCOTUSBlog). Justice O’Connor was born in 1930 and was appointed to the US Supreme Court in 1981 by President Reagan as the first woman in history. She sat on the bench until 2006 when she retired and was replaced by Justice Alito appointed by President Bush. Justice O’Connor went down in history not only as the first female Justice of the US Supreme Court but also as the Court’s early Swing Vote. Appointed by a Republican President, Justice O’Connor believed in a limited federal government and as such was part of the so called Rehnquist Revolution whereby the US Supreme Court intended to set limits to the powers of the federal government. With cases such as United States v. Alfonso D. Lopez, Jr., 514 U.S. 549 (1995) and United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000), the Rehnquist Court strove to return to the concept of the federal government as a government of enumerated powers after several decades of a rapid federal expansion. Justice O’Connor joined the other Republican-appointed Justices in deciding those cases.

In fact, Justice O’Connor started as a reliable conservative vote siding with (Chief) Justice Rehnquist 87% of the time during her first 3 years on the bench (Greenburg). Since 1984 until 1998, Justice O’Connor’s support for (Chief) Justice Rehnquist’s opinions ranged from 93.4% to 63.2% (Los Angeles Times). With the passage of time, Justice O’Connor started to slowly drift towards the liberal side of the Court and between 1994 and 2004, she voted with the liberal Justices a total of 28 times (Harvard Law Review). This included some key issues such as affirmative action (Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003)), religious liberty (Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992)) and abortion (Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992)). In any event, Justice O’Connor will always be a symbol of an ever-changing Supreme Court.

Justice Kavanaugh Joins SCOTUS

On the night of 6 – 7 October Judge Kavanaugh was officially confirmed by a 51-49 majority of the US Senate as a new Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who was considered a swing vote, voted ‘present’ therefore opposing the candidacy. Another Republican swing vote, Susan Collins of Maine, aligned with a Republican majority after a forceful defence of Judge Kavanaugh on the Senate floor the day before. The Republicans also picked up one Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia who is facing a tough re-election fight in his deeply red state. The vote comes after weeks of investigations and hearings concerning sexual misconduct allegations against Judge Kavanaugh put forward by 3 different women, among which was that of Dr Christine Blasey Ford, which was a subject of a special Senate Judiciary Committee hearing (summary of allegations: Business Insider UK). In the last days of the process, many Senators saw protesters roaming the Senate halls demonstrating both their support and opposition to Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation. This also included many examples of disorderly behaviour leading to hundreds protesters being arrested (The Guardian). The opposition to Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation was based on a whole range of arguments, from those related to his judicial record, through the non-disclosure of old communication records, to those concerning sexual misconduct allegations and his short temper. On the other hand, the Republicans complained that the Democrats were adamant to derail the confirmation process with malicious behaviour from the start and none of their arguments had any merits. At the end of the day, however, Judge Kavanaugh has been dully confirmed and will now join the other 8 Justices of the Supreme Court who have already returned to work from their summer break.

The appointment of Judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is bound to create a reliable originalist majority for the first time in almost 80 years, i.e. since Justice Owen Roberts abandoned the originalist approach in the case of West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, 300 U.S. 379 (1937) thereby ending the so called Lochner era in the Court’s jurisprudence. Although since 1937 the Court has seen periods with a majority composed of Republican-appointed Justices, they have not been consistently originalist in their judicial philosophies. It was the appointment of Justice Scalia to the bench by President Reagan in 1986 that brought the originalist philosophy back from the exile to the mainstream. Since then, other originalists have been appointed to the Court, including Justice Thomas (1991), Chief Justice Roberts (2005), Justice Alito (2006), Justice Gorsuch (2017) and now Justice Kavanaugh. Although the originalism of Chief Justice Roberts is admittedly less rigorous than that of Justice Thomas, and in the incoming years he might be even moving more towards the centre, it seems that the current Court is bound to be concerned with the original meaning of the Constitution more than at any other point within the last 80 years.

These changes to the composition of the Supreme Court will have a profound impact on a whole range of cases which are likely to reach the Court in this term. Firstly, on the subject of the 2nd Amendment, the Court might be asked to decide what types of firearms are covered by the 2nd Amendment and whether the Amendment applies to all public spaces in addition to one’s home. In this respect there appears to be a circuit split between the 9th and the 7th Circuit Courts of Appeals (Peruta v. County of San Diego, 824 F.3d 919, 939 (2016) v Moore v Madigan (USDC 11-CV-405-WDS, 11-CV-03134; 7th Cir. 12-1269, 12-1788)). Secondly, on the never-ending issue of ObamaCare, the Court will likely be asked to resolve the question whether the ObamaCare’s Individual Mandate (and possibly other parts of the statute with it) has been rendered unconstitutional by The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act 2017 which eliminated the tax/penalty for not complying with it. At this point, several Red States are suing claiming that the elimination of the tax has rendered the Individual Mandate unconstitutional as now, in the absence of any tax attached to it, it could only be construed as an exercise of the Congress’s power to regulate inter-state commerce which was already declared invalid by the US Supreme Court in its famous 2012 case (Texas Tribune). However, the lawsuit goes even further and claims that the Individual Mandate is inseverable from the rest of the law, or at least from its certain parts, such as the community rating, and if it is in fact struck down by the Court, it might drag other parts of the ObamaCare with it. Given that the Trump Administration decided not to defend the lawsuit, the case is now bound to proceed further up the ladder towards the Supreme Court (The Atlantic). Thirdly, the Court might be asked to rule whether the DACA programme (and its rescission via executive action) is constitutional. The Trump Administration announced in 2017 that it would rescind the DACA programme altogether as incompatible with federal immigration laws on the books. However, on 3 August 2018, a DC District Court ruled in the case of Trustees of Princeton University v United States (1:17-cv-02325-JDB) that the rescission of DACA was unlawful because the Administration did not supply the Court with any valid reason for its decision. Now an appeal in this case is expected by the Trump Administration. Fourthly, also on the immigration subject, the Court might be asked to finally resolve the question of the legality of the so called sanctuary cities. In 2017 the Department of Justice decided to withdraw funding from cities refusing to cooperate with the federal government in respect of immigration enforcement and in March 2018 it sued the State of California for its sanctuary policies. On the other hand, in return, two of California counties sued the Department of Justice claiming that such a withdrawal of funds was unconstitutional and persuaded a local District Court as well as the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to grant an injunction (The Washington Post). Fifthly, the Court is likely to be asked again to rule on the constitutionality of affirmative action as last decisions on this subject have been extremely closely decided with Justice Kennedy always casting the deciding vote. So far there is no case pending before any federal court concerning affirmative action, however, there have been some moves by the Trump Administration to limits its impact, such as reversing President Obama’s policy on affirmative action in schools (NY Times) or investigating the impact of affirmative action programmes at the Harvard University on the Asian-American minority admissions (CNN). Finally, the Court will most likely, again, deal with abortion. On 4 May 2018 the State of Iowa passed into law in the so called ‘heartbeat’ Act banning abortions as soon as fetal heartbeat could be detected, which usually happens around the sixth week into pregnancy, which now constitutes the most restrictive abortion law in the country. Immediately, the American Civil Liberties Union sued in the Polk County District Court for a declaration of unconstitutionality as well as an interim injunction against the law which was granted on 1 June 2018 (Des Moines Register). The case is now being considered on its merits but regardless of the Court’s decision, it is bound to be appealed and eventually end up before the Supreme Court. Overall, given the multitude of important issues which await consideration by the US Supreme Court, the new originalist majority of the Court might leave a unique legacy for decades to come.