Author: moderndemocracyblog

Cooper v. Harris: Proxy Battles & Partisan War

Those fighting for a more inclusive and representative democracy would do well to look past the headlines about this term’s election law cases.  A sobering trend seems to be unfolding: a good result splashes across the news—monster voter suppression law dies!—only to be replaced with a slow realization that the retreat may be less of a rout and more of a retrenchment.

So it may be with yesterday’s decision in Cooper v. Harris.  The Twitter-sized takeaway is a mixed bag: Good short-term result and good clarification of the law on “race-as-a-proxy-for-politics”; bad dicta on partisan advantage and bad signaling for future partisan gerrymandering cases based on Kennedy’s place among the dissenters.

The cause for caution is that this trade-off (more clarity on proxies, less clarity on partisanship) provides helpful tools for fighting yesterday’s proxy battles but may not help bring the larger partisan war to a close.  The racially gerrymandered map at issue in yesterday’s case, for example, was replaced by the North Carolina legislature with a partisan gerrymandered map over a year ago.  Unless the Court takes a strong stand on partisan gerrymandering next term, meaningful racial and political representation will remain at risk.

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Atoning for Garland: An 18-Year Gorsuch Term

After taking the unprecedented step of denying a president the opportunity to fill a Supreme Court vacancy during his term, the Senate majority now stands on the brink of another: invoking the nuclear option. Judge Neil Gorsuch finds himself at the center of this historic aberration, his candidacy itself—and now his likely appointment—a byproduct and reflection of a complete breakdown in political norms and traditions.

Just because the breakdown is indefensible[1] and inexcusable does not mean it is unexplainable: the political stakes on both sides are enormous and are increasingly viewed as existential. In fact, given the power of Supreme Court seats to define the direction of the country for a generation, it is some wonder this collapse did not come sooner. And here, perhaps, is where Judge Gorsuch could do some useful precedent-shattering of his own and make the asterisk by his name in the history books a more positive one: he could agree to serve an 18-year term.

The immense political pressures that surround the nomination and appointment process are a direct result of the influence and unpredictability of the Justices’ lifetime terms. Lifetime tenure on the highest court in the land is a rarity on the world scene, and hardly necessary to secure judicial independence. (The Framers gave Supreme Court Justices life tenure in an era when the average American could expect to live only thirty-five years.) Instead, as Calabresi and Lindgren propose, the Justices could serve staggered 18-year terms, with vacancies occurring at the beginning of the summer recess in every odd-numbered year (occurring during the first and third year of a President’s four-year term).

If Senators knew that each President would have the opportunity to appoint two Justices—no more, no less—during each term in office, then the stakes at each confirmation would recede. And, as a matter of principle, it seems far more defensible for each President to have the same impact on the judiciary. (Why, for example, should it be that Clinton, Obama, and both Bushes only had two appointments, whereas Reagan and Nixon each had four?)

The difficulty with instituting judicial term limits is that no party will unilaterally disarm when their President is in office. Even if both parties agreed with the concept in theory, neither party is likely to push for a constitutional amendment while they hold the keys to the Court. This is why nothing like this seems to be on the horizon.

And this is precisely why Judge Gorsuch could—and should—take on the task. While a politically prescribed system of term limits might be preferable, judicial traditions could replace (and outlast) those crumbling in the political branches. As an uninvited beneficiary of broken political precedents, Gorsuch is uniquely placed to set down new judicial ones. Only eight other individuals would then need to be convinced that lifetime Supreme Court terms have evolved from a bulwark of democracy into an albatross.

In our nation’s infancy, President George Washington independently decided to retire after two terms, beginning a tradition that would last until 1940 and be preserved by constitutional amendment just a decade later. At a time when precedents, traditions, and norms are collapsing at an alarming rate in the face of unbridled partisan power, it would be notable for someone to forgo their own interests for the good of the country. Perhaps it’s naïve to even entertain such a hope. After all, the decision would surely be unprecedented.

 

[1] The rule that there should be no appointments during “an election season” runs into some pretty thorny questions pretty quickly. When does the “election season” begin? Does the rule apply based on the occurrence of a particular event? If so, is Trump’s filing with the FEC and decision to hold campaign-style rallies already enough?  Or does it require a formal announcement?  If so, can a candidate formally announce and thereby invoke the new rule starting today?  Or, if the rule is just based on time rather than a specific event, is it a one-year rule?  Is it a two-year rule?  How long is an “election season,” exactly? The reality, of course, is that there is no “principle” behind what happened to Judge Garland – it was pure politics. (One can hardly imagine the same Senate majority insisting on honoring this “election season” principle were another Justice to retire or pass away in the run up to the 2020 election.)

Is Bethune-Hill a Major Voting Rights Victory or the Next Northwest Austin?

On March 1st, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Bethune-Hill.[1] While the Court’s decision to remand eleven of the twelve Virginia legislative districts wasn’t too surprising given Kennedy’s skeptical tone at oral argument, what was surprising was the virtually unanimous acclaim from the election law community.[2] Taking a page from Stephen Colbert, the only question seemed to be whether Bethune was a great decision or the greatest decision.

As Marc Elias and Rick Pildes pointed out, the holding that race and traditional criteria need not conflict to find predominance in racial sorting cases resolved a question with major implications for litigants in the field. This will make the standard easier to satisfy and undoubtedly lead to more cases.   Michael Dorf called it a “surprisingly liberal 7-1 result,” and Elias described it as a “7-1” victory before stating that it was “[a]ctually, more like 8-0.”

But this superficial consensus among the Justices should give pause to those who care about the survival of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). The sorting claim was developed by opponents of the VRA as a weapon to cut down districts designed to protect minority voting power. Only recently have voting rights lawyers begun to wield this weapon for their own purpose: striking down districts that pack minority voters based on the pretext of “complying” with the VRA. At the end of the day, the claim remains a weapon that can be used to advance or undermine the VRA, and Bethune has sharpened the knife for both sides.

Perhaps the most revealing sign of these crosscutting currents was Chief Justice Roberts’ presence in the majority. Roberts has long opposed Section 2’s results test and previously subscribed to the views of Justices Alito and Thomas regarding predominance, agreeing with Justice Scalia in LULAC that the intentional creation of a majority-minority district alone necessarily triggers strict scrutiny. So why the change? One explanation might be that the Chief Justice is building an illusion of consensus similar to that found in Northwest Austin ahead of a more sweeping and controversial decision yet to come.[3]

With more redistricting litigation ahead, the key to preserving the VRA will be handling the Bethune holding with care. Below I examine the good, the bad, and the ugly about Bethune and offer some thoughts on how it might be used to help enforce the VRA and fend off challenges to the VRA rather than inviting its demise.[4]

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“FairVote and Leading Maine Civic Groups File Briefs Defending Ranked Choice Voting”

The fight for Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) in Maine continues!  Proud to have worked with FairVote on this brief.

With all the recent news on redistricting (which will be addressed in a couple of forthcoming posts), it’s important not to overlook the significant headway that RCV is making across the nation.  As FairVote points out, “[t]here are now 18 states with bills advancing ranked choice voting.”  In fact, the Utah House just today voted 59-12 to pass a bipartisan bill that would require the use of ranked choice voting for nearly all Utah elections.

Want to know more about how Ranked Choice Voting can improve our elections?  Head on over to FairVote to find out… and then take action!

Basis, Intent, and the Blood Sport Republic: A Voting Rights Framework for a Constitutional Democracy

This weekend, William & Mary will host an impressive symposium with the daunting task of “lay[ing] a definitive academic foundation” for redistricting law ahead of the 2020 census. The topic could not be more pressing. The Supreme Court continues to consider Bethune-Hill[1] and McCrory, is holding Covington and Harris[2] in limbo pending those decisions, and will almost assuredly see the historic Whitford case land on its doorstep soon. In a weekend that is sure to reveal a number of disagreements on critical questions, perhaps all attendees can agree on one thing: “The most charitable thing to say about the current state of . . . gerrymandering law is that it is a big mess.

Yet, in the background of almost every major debate lingers a conceptual distinction that could help strike consensus across a range of issues: the distinction between “intent” and “basis.” Intent asks: “Why this district?” Basis asks: “Why this person?”

The concepts intersect on the margins, but each plays a unique and distinct role in the “dilution v. sorting” question, the “race v. party” question, and the balance of powers question, among others. Moreover, the importance of this distinction goes beyond redistricting law—it could play a key role in forming a more coherent, simple, and rigorous voting rights framework at a time when it could not be more critical.

In the field of redistricting law, this distinction makes it possible to reduce a complex body of law into a relatively simple table (assuming the Court is willing to adopt both a political dilution claim and a political sorting claim, as I have advocated and as would address the concerns of the Whitford dissent).[3]  [UPDATE: Aspects of this table have been eclipsed by more recent developments in the law.]

Redistricting
  Racial Dilution (Statutory) Racial Dilution Political Dilution Racial Sorting Political Sorting
Authority[4] VRA & 15th 14th 1st and/or 14th (Whitford) 14th 1st and/or 14th
Intent

(“Why this district?”)

No showing required

Device may violate VRA despite having political purpose

Device enacted or maintained “to minimize or cancel out the voting potential of racial or ethnic minorities” (Bolden) Device enacted or maintained to “to minimize or eliminate the political strength of any group or party” (Gaffney; Bandemer (citing Bolden)), or

“to place a severe impediment on the effectiveness of the votes of individual citizens on the basis of their political affiliation” (Whitford)

No showing required, but relevant evidence to predominance/basis and state showing of tailored justification

Political objective does not change racial basis of sort. (Bethune)

No showing required, but relevant evidence to predominance/basis and state showing of tailored justification
Basis[5]

(“Why this person?”)

Evidence of racial basis may favor causation finding, if legally necessary[6] No showing required; but relevant to proving intent No showing required, but relevant to proving intent “State has [predominantly] used race as a basis for separating voters into districts.” Miller

(i.e., racial basis subordinates in fact (Bethune))

Burden shifts on showing of predominant basis (Miller, Bethune)

State has predominantly used political data as a basis for separating voters into districts (i.e., political basis subordinates in fact (Bethune))

Burden shifts on showing of predominant basis (Bethune)

Effect (Preconditions) Gingles Test (threshold showing that device can impair equal ability to elect)

No strict threshold for finding legally significant polarization (Gingles)

Gingles Test

See Martinez, 234 F. Supp. 2d 1275 (applying Gingles)

No strict threshold for finding legally significant polarization (Gingles)

“Modified Gingles” Test (threshold showing could be Whitford efficiency gap, Sam Wang’s approach, Bernie Grofman’s factors, etc.)

No strict threshold is necessary

N/A N/A
Effect (Liability) Totality of Circumstances Totality of Circumstances

Burden shifts if plaintiff makes prima facie case (Arlington Heights)

Totality of Circumstances

Efficiency gap is weighty evidence, but not dispositive (Whitford)

Burden shifts if plaintiff makes prima facie case (Whitford)[7]

No showing required

(Expressive and representational harms implied when predominant basis is race)

No showing required

(Expressive and representational harms implied when predominant basis is politics)

State Justifications (Permissible)[8]

See generally, Parsons.

Protect Minority Ability to Elect; Prevent Dilution (City of Rome) Protect Minority Ability to Elect; Prevent Dilution (City of Rome) Competitiveness, Proportionality, Incumbency Pairing Prevention, etc. (Gaffney, Cromartie, Karcher, Bush, LULAC) Protect Minority Ability to Elect; Prevent Dilution (City of Rome) Competitiveness, Proportionality, Incumbency Pairing Prevention, etc. (Gaffney, Cromartie, Karcher, Bush, LULAC)
State Justifications (Impermissible)[9]

See generally, Parsons.

Racial, Partisan, or Incumbency Advantage (Bolden, Bartlett, Gaffney, Bandemer, Vieth, LULAC, Bethune) Racial, Partisan, or Incumbency Advantage

(Bolden, Bartlett, Gaffney, Bandemer, Vieth, LULAC, Bethune)

Racial, Partisan, or Incumbency Advantage

(Bolden, Bartlett, Gaffney, Bandemer, Vieth, LULAC, Bethune)

Racial, Partisan, or Incumbency Advantage

(Bolden, Bartlett, Gaffney, Bandemer, Vieth, LULAC, Bethune)

Racial, Partisan, or Incumbency Advantage

(Bolden, Bartlett, Gaffney, Bandemer, Vieth, LULAC, Bethune)

Below, I explain the basis/intent distinction further, how it resolves a number of redistricting law issues, and how it plays a critical role in preserving foundational principles of constitutional law in our democracy.

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2017 Score: Swamp 1, Drain 0

On the eve of the 115th Congress, House Republicans have voted to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics – an independent ethics watchdog created in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal.  The proposal creates, instead, a new “Office of Congressional Complaint Review” within the House Ethics Committee, giving lawmakers themselves more control over internal ethics inquiries.  Early reports suggest the new office won’t be able to release information to the public, have a communications spokesperson, consider anonymous tips against lawmakers, or even communicate with law enforcement unless the House Ethics Committee approves.

The proposed change will be included in a package of new House Rules governing the incoming Congress, which is scheduled for a vote by the full House tomorrow afternoon.

UPDATE: After a swift and overwhelming blowback from the public, the plan was scuttled.  Issue One’s press release provides the reformers’ mantra for all of the challenges on the horizon: Victory, then Vigilance.

Bethune-Hill & McCrory: If Either Party Wins, We All Lose

Yesterday, in Bethune-Hill and McCrory, counsel for the voter-plaintiffs asked the Supreme Court to reverse the Virginia decision and affirm the North Carolina decision. The state-defendants requested the opposite. Based on the Justices’ questions, the plaintiffs appear poised to get what they want. Yet, a full-out victory for either side should concern all of us—including the plaintiffs. That is because counsel for the voter-plaintiffs may have just purchased a few state house seats at the cost of the Voting Rights Act itself.

The arguments yesterday were marked by confusion, with the underlying tension between the commands of the Voting Rights Act and the Equal Protection Clause coming up on several occasions. Indeed, at one point, counsel for the state-defendants went so far as to raise the issue directly, prompting a quick response from Justice Kagan:

CLEMENT: [T]he Voting Rights Act makes the consideration of race absolutely necessary. . . . [U]nless you want to take the first steps towards declaring the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, you don’t want to send the signal that when legislatures approach this in a way that I think is perfectly appropriate to what’s going on. . . .

JUSTICE KAGAN: You absolutely don’t, Mr. Clement.

Unfortunately, this problem cannot be so easily ignored when the Justices are forced to put pen to paper. They are the ones who must harmonize the racial sorting claim with the commands of the Voting Rights Act, and for the time being they seem to be at a loss. As Justice Breyer tellingly noted towards the end of the arguments:

JUSTICE BREYER: But, . . .what exactly is going on, in part, is a very tough matter. . . . There were many States that had many black citizens and had no black representation, and there was a [decision to] have majority-minority districts. And the problem is, how does the law permit the creation of that, and at the same time, prevent the kind of packing that might appear in other cases, which is gerrymandering? And . . . no one, I think, has a good answer to that question. There is just slightly better, slightly worse.

But there is a good answer to that question, and there is a way forward. Unfortunately, it wasn’t offered by either side and requires rejecting both sets of arguments in part. For the reasons stated below, the Court should reject the plaintiffs’ view of predominance in Bethune-Hill, reject the states’ justifications for gerrymandering in McCrory, and affirm the results in both cases. The Voting Rights Act depends on it, the Constitution demands it, and our democracy requires it.

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