Courting Kennedy

As oral argument in Gill v. Whitford nears, everyone’s eyes are on Justice Kennedy.  Rick Hasen and Ned Foley have pointed out important issues and questions that may bear on the outcome.  With Hasen’s caveat that “I don’t think anyone outside the Court can know just yet [what Justice Kennedy is going to do],” I nonetheless offer one final bit of speculation.  Justice Kennedy seems to be looking for two interrelated explanations:

(1) why the claim presents a sound constitutional basis for intervention; and

(2) how that intervention doesn’t exceed the Court’s role in the separation of powers and federal design.

Despite heavy focus on the first question, giving Justice Kennedy a good answer to the second question may be just as important.  Justice Kennedy has repeatedly expressed concerns about the institutional role of the Court in both racial and political gerrymandering cases.  For racial gerrymandering, consider Miller: “Federal-court review of districting legislation represents a serious intrusion on the most vital of local functions. . . . [Courts] must be sensitive to the complex interplay of forces that enter a legislature’s redistricting calculus.”  For political gerrymandering, consider Vieth: “A decision ordering the correction of all election district lines drawn for partisan reasons would commit federal and state courts to unprecedented intervention in the American political process. The Court is correct to refrain from directing this substantial intrusion into the Nation’s political life.”

More recently, there’s Cooper, where Justice Kennedy joined Justice Alito’s dissent.  How did Justice Kagan lose Kennedy’s vote?  I suspect Kennedy protested the elimination of the alternative-map requirement.  Justice Kagan pointed out that “in no area of our equal protection law have we forced plaintiffs to submit one particular form of proof to prevail.”  But for all its constitutional shortcomings, the alternative-map requirement did provide a prudential buffer.  This was the centerpiece of Justice Alito’s attack:  “The alternative-map requirement . . . is a logical response to the difficult problem of distinguishing between race and political motivations when race and political party preference closely correlate.  This is a problem with serious institutional and federalism implications.”

In an especially foreboding pair of sentences, Alito wrote (and Kennedy agreed) that “if a court mistakes a political gerrymander for a racial gerrymander, it illegitimately invades a traditional domain of state authority, usurping the role of a State’s elected representatives.  This does violence to both the proper role of the Judiciary and the powers reserved to the States under the Constitution.”

Kennedy is occasionally portrayed as a Justice who wants to intervene and is merely waiting for an acceptable standard.  Instead, perhaps we should view Kennedy as a Justice who is reluctant to intervene but could be compelled if a sufficiently persuasive rationale is identified.  In this telling, the answer to question (2) becomes more important.

Justice Kennedy is not alone in assuming that judicial involvement may exceed the Court’s proper role.  But as I note in a forthcoming essay [now published in the Cardozo Law Review de•novo], this assumption overlooks an important institutional point from none other than Justice Kennedy himself: “Abdication of responsibility is not part of the constitutional design.”  Clinton v. City of New York.  If the Constitution is violated, the Court has an important institutional role to play.  By failing to play its role, the Court has created a severe distortion of redistricting doctrine and caused immense harm to our constitutional system over the last few decades.

Nor should the defendants be permitted to hide behind arguments made in the name of federalism.  The Constitution’s federal structure was designed to prevent tyranny, safeguard liberty, and ensure that “state governments remain responsive to the local electorate’s preferences [and] state officials remain accountable to the people.”  New York v. United States.  Intervention would enhance responsiveness and accountability and protect federalism’s critical role in the constitutional design.  In weighing the deference owed state legislatures, “a vital constitutional principle must not be forgotten: Liberty requires accountability.”  Dep’t of Transp. v. Ass’n of Am. R.R. (Alito, J., concurring).

Two particular features of the plaintiffs’ claim help address questions (1) and (2) above and could nudge Justice Kennedy towards favoring intervention at the end of the day.

First, the district court opinion distinguished between routine political intent and invidious partisan intent.  Michael Kang, Justin Levitt, and I have argued that this distinction should be the primary focus of any partisan gerrymandering claim.  (To build upon the boxing analogy of Dr. Grofman and Dr. King, even an extreme knockout punch is permitted if it’s clean, but attempting to bite off an opponent’s ear is another story.  It wouldn’t help to argue that you only bit off a small piece of ear.)

While the effects inquiry is the undisputed star of the show in Gill (and the Gill claim requires a more rigorous effects showing), the intent distinction in Gill is still critical because it helps provide the Justices more coherent conceptual categories and helps provide a stronger constitutional justification for judicial intervention.  There is an obvious difference between the intent to beat your opponent by appealing to voters and the intent to beat your opponent by suppressing voters.  By reemphasizing just how out of sync invidious partisan intent (or, for Kang, partisan government purpose) is with the rest of the Court’s jurisprudence, the plaintiffs may be able to move Kennedy from a sense of reluctance to a sense of obligation.

Second, the plaintiffs’ approach only draws durable gerrymanders into question.  If one accepts the premise that only “extreme” gerrymanders are unconstitutional, this is a reasonable place to call foul.  Like the intent distinction above, a durability threshold sounds more in categories of harm (durable or not durable) than degrees of harm (more or less dilutive).

Even if one believes that gerrymanders do not need to be durable to be unlawful as a matter of constitutional theory, however, the effects requirement may still prove useful on Tuesday.  For if the aim is courting Kennedy—and the answer to question (2) ends up holding the balance—then an extra prudential buffer may be just what the Justice is looking for.

 

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