Author: moderndemocracyblog

The Value of Gerrymandering

On Tuesday, Justice Sotomayor asked a “simple but devastatingly effective” question of Erin Murphy, one of the attorneys arguing in favor of Wisconsin’s gerrymandered map: “Could you tell me what the value is to democracy from political gerrymandering?”  At first glance, Justice Sotomayor’s question seems important because it transcends “the technicalities of constitutional doctrine” and raises “first principles,” making the presumed answer easy: “Political gerrymandering has no value in a democracy.”

Murphy’s answer—claiming that gerrymandering “produces values in terms of accountability”—seemed incomprehensible to observers.  “I really don’t understand . . . what that means,” was the Justice’s own apt response.  The type of gerrymander enacted in Wisconsin is specifically designed to defeat accountability, not foster it.  What was Ms. Murphy—a stellar advocate—talking about?

The answer is more revealing than it might seem because Justice Sotomayor’s question is more complex than it might seem.  Asking about the “value” of gerrymandering doesn’t just implicate democratic “first principles”—it strikes at the heart of the constitutional doctrine as well.

As Justice Breyer observed in his Vieth dissent (invoked by Ms. Murphy), political considerations can “play an important, and proper, role in the drawing of district boundaries.”  In Vieth, Breyer points to an example of a neutral court-appointed boundary drawer accidentally moving an uninhabited swamp from one district to another, thereby inadvertently disrupting environmental projects that were important to the politician representing the swamp’s former district.  This may be a “micro” political consideration, but any person (or organization) that has spent years working with his or her representative on a specific neighborhood project will recognize the democratic value in keeping certain areas tied to certain seats, whether to support and maintain the politician who is doing good work or to mobilize and defeat the politician who has stymied that work.  This accountability and responsiveness to voters’ interests is a feature of democracy, not a bug.

At a “macro” level, the Court has also previously allowed mapmakers to allocate seats proportionally based on statewide party voting strength, and presumably would allow a legislature to draw “competitive” seats, if it so chose.  Because both of these interests require mapmakers to draw districts based on voters’ political preferences and beliefs, however, both of these forms of redistricting are also—in the Court’s own confusing doctrinal parlance—“political gerrymandering.”

In other words, “political gerrymandering” (as the Court has curiously defined it) can serve important democratic values such as accountability, competitiveness, proportionality, etc.  Murphy’s unconvincing attempt to tie the Wisconsin map to these examples and precedents, however, reveals a key doctrinal distinction: political gerrymandering for partisan advantage does not have any such constitutional legitimacy.  That is why divvying up congressional seats in purple North Carolina between 6 Ds / 6 Rs in 2001 can be constitutional, even if divvying up the same state between 3 Ds / 10 Rs in 2016 is not.

Justice Kennedy makes a similar point in LULAC when discussing the difference between legitimate incumbency considerations and illegitimate incumbency considerations (leaving open the question of whether such a distinction might support a claim outside the racial gerrymandering context):

“The Court has noted that incumbency protection can be a legitimate factor in districting, but experience teaches that incumbency protection can take various forms, not all of them in the interests of the constituents.  If the justification for incumbency protection is to keep the constituency intact so the officeholder is accountable for promises made or broken, then the protection seems to accord with concern for the voters.  If, on the other hand, incumbency protection means excluding some voters from the district simply because they are likely to vote against the officeholder, the change is to benefit the officeholder, not the voters.  By purposely redrawing lines around those who opposed [the incumbent], the state legislature took the latter course.  This policy, whatever its validity in the realm of politics, cannot justify the effect on Latino voters.”

Justice Sotomayor’s question isn’t a “gotcha” intended to corner an advocate—it’s a graceful synthesis of the Supreme Court’s confusing case law.  If a map advances democratic values, or legislators redistrict with the purpose of advancing democratic values, then there is little justification for courts to get involved, as the Justices recognized in Gaffney v. Cummings: “[The] judicial interest should be at its lowest ebb when a State purports fairly to allocate political power to the parties in accordance with their voting strength and, within quite tolerable limits, succeeds in doing so.”  When legislators act counter to democratic values and attempt to insulate themselves from their own voters, however, they cannot hide behind the mere fact that “politics” play a (well-warranted) role in the redistricting process—a distinction the Justices also recognized in Gaffney: “[A plan] may be vulnerable [to challenge], if racial or political groups have been fenced out of the political process and their voting strength invidiously minimized.”

Sotomayor’s question lays bare the simplicity of this constitutional issue in a way “the intelligent man of the street” is sure to appreciate.  Far from diminishing the Court’s credibility, judicial intervention along these lines would enhance the reputation of the Court, just as the one-person one-vote doctrine did decades ago.  And just as this generation may now wonder how an obvious doctrine like one-person one-vote took so long to arrive, “[s]o too will it be when this generation explains to their children that the government used to be able to discriminate between citizens based on how the government predicted they would vote, allowing the state to favor preordained candidates and to suppress the influence of those who disagreed with the state-sanctioned choices.”

What is the value to democracy from political gerrymandering for partisan advantage?

The intuitive answer is the right one: None.

Turmeric for a Rare Consensus

Today, the Supreme Court heard argument in Gill v. Whitford.  The Court seems as divided as ever, and the ultimate outcome still rests in Justice Kennedy’s unpredictable hands. Yet, oral argument revealed something else: litigants who seem to agree on a key principle and Justices who seem to be revisiting the important parallels between racial and political gerrymandering case law.

As far as predictions go, guessing where Justice Kennedy will land remains difficult, but the conservative bloc on the Court previewed the outline of an opinion that it surely hopes Kennedy will join.  Their two key arguments seem tailored to Kennedy: (1) the claim is not sufficiently rooted in the Constitution, and (2) intervention would threaten the Court’s institutional integrity and exceed its constitutional role.

Chief Justice Roberts called the efficiency gap “gobbledygook” (a label eyebrow-raisingly endorsed by Justice Breyer); argued that a ruling “based on the fact that EG was greater than 7 percent” doesn’t “sound like language in the Constitution”; and aired the concern that “the intelligent man on the street” would think that the EG explanation was “a bunch of baloney” and would instead believe that judicial cases were being decided based on the Justices’ own partisan preferences, causing “very serious harm to the status and integrity of the decisions of this Court in the eyes of the country.”  Justice Alito joined the fray with a framing sure to irritate young scholars everywhere: “In 2014, a young researcher publishes a paper . . . [saying] I have discovered the Rosetta stone and it’s . . . the efficiency gap.  And then a year later you bring this suit and you say: There it is, that is the constitutional standard. . . . [A]fter 200 years, it’s been finally discovered.”

Some of this is misleading: the plaintiffs did not claim on appeal that the efficiency gap should be dispositive. Justice Gorsuch took on this point in turn, observing that the district court “didn’t rely on [the] efficiency gap entirely” but instead relied on a range of measures of partisan asymmetry.  Likening the court’s effects analysis to his own steak rub (including “a pinch of this, a pinch of that,” and a touch of the Justice’s favored turmeric), Gorsuch lamented that an unpredictable mix of tests “doesn’t seem very fair to the states” who must comply with whatever law the Supreme Court announces.  In perhaps one of the morning’s more loaded questions, the Justice then asked plaintiffs, “What is it that you want us to constitutionalize?”

While it’s fair to point out that the horse may be out of the barn when it comes to fears about politicizing the Supreme Court or losing the trust of voters, the credibility of the Court still matters to the long-term health of the country and these arguments only need to win over one voter: Kennedy.  And Justice Kennedy is notoriously sensitive to the institutional role of the Court in gerrymandering cases.  (Indeed, because Roberts, Alito, and Gorsuch so vigorously pressed this line of inquiry, Kennedy’s silence during the exchanges may not be as revealing as one might hope.)

Nonetheless, some interesting areas of consensus arose in the Supreme Court today.  As I argue in an essay published today (with many thanks to the team at the Cardozo Law Review de novo), the Court could go a long way towards improving the clarity, coherency, and consistency of its case law (and enhancing the institutional integrity of the courts and state legislatures) by affirming in Gill v. Whitford and reversing in Harris v. Cooper based on some of today’s rare points of agreement.

Perhaps the most powerful point of agreement came in response to Justice Kennedy’s revival of his hypothetical from Vieth: “Suppose a . . . state statute says all districts shall be designed as closely as possible to conform with traditional principles, but the overriding concern is to . . . have a maximum number of votes for party X or party Y.  What result?”  After even Justice Alito acknowledged that “you cannot have a law that says draw maps to favor one party or the other,” the defendants and intervenors conceded that such a law would be unconstitutional:

MS. MURPHY: I think that that would be better thought of probably as an equal protection violation, but you could think of it . . . as a First Amendment violation in the sense that it is viewpoint discrimination against the individuals who the legislation is saying you have to specifically draw the maps in a way to injure.

MR. TSEYTLIN: A facially discriminatory law in a state would violate the First Amendment because it would stigmatize that party.

These concessions matter because they reflect a broad consensus on a key issue underlying many questions raised today.  Like the not-so-hypothetical facially partisan redistricting criteria adopted by North Carolina in Harris v. Cooper, Kennedy’s statute doesn’t require any showing of effect to be constitutionally troubling.  Rather, by using a facial category, such a law forces states to answer whether partisan advantage is a legitimate government purpose at all.

It is not.

Both the defendants and intervenors attempted to distinguish their case (and turn the tables back on the Court) by contending that the Court’s opinions say that “there will always be partisan intent” in redistricting.  But not only does this mischaracterize the Court’s prior case law, it is not even a coherent response on its own terms: if partisan intent or partisan government purpose is constitutionally legitimate, then the defendants and intervenors should have argued that Justice Kennedy’s hypothetical statute would survive, not fail.

As the district court noted in its opinion, there is a difference between an “intent to act for political purposes” (which the Supreme Court has upheld), and an “intent to make the political system systematically unresponsive to a particular segment of the voters based on their political preference” (which the Supreme Court has not upheld, and which the Court repeatedly condemned in its early redistricting decisions).  If one accepts this distinction between types of intent, many of the objections raised today fall away.

  • Worried about “false positives” from symmetry metrics (from, for example, commission-drawn maps or court-drawn maps)? The absence of invidious partisan intent means that such a claim would fail.  The constitutional problem isn’t that any particular voter in any particular district faces poor odds; the constitutional problem arises when a district is designed to give particular voters poor odds.
  • Worried about explaining the outcome of court cases to the average man or woman on the street? Tell them that the Court overturned a law because the State classified citizens and/or suppressed citizens’ right to vote in an unconstitutional attempt to preordain the victory of state-favored candidates.  Ask the man or woman on the street how they feel about the Court then, and you’re likely to hear one of two responses: “Finally!” or “Wait, legislators were allowed to do that?  How was that ever constitutional?”
  • Worried about the Court’s ability to distinguish between legitimate state interests (such as enhancing competitiveness or pursuing proportionality) and illegitimate state interests (such as maximizing advantage)? Perhaps take a look at racial gerrymandering law, which distinguishes between using race to preserve electoral opportunities (legitimate) and using race to entrench electoral advantages (illegitimate), as Justice Ginsburg reiterated today.

Indeed, in discussing both standing and the merits, the important parallels between racial gerrymandering law and political gerrymandering law were on full display today.  Kennedy’s “overriding concern” language seems uncannily similar to the formulation used in racial sorting case law, and Gorsuch’s supposedly troubling “turmeric standard” goes by a more well-known name in constitutional racial dilution cases: the totality of circumstances.  This standard—like any spice rub—may vary a bit from batch to batch and set-of-facts to set-of-facts.

Nor would following these routine, black-letter principles of constitutional law threaten to plunge the Court headlong into any kind of institutional crisis.  Most of the troubling questions posed today (“Why EG > 7%?”) were premised on the dangers the Court might face under some kind of effects-only standard, which—standing alone—might reasonably seem divorced from the constitutional roots of the violation.  By refocusing on the constitutional illegitimacy of partisan voter suppression (as opposed to partisan voter persuasion), the various effects tests set out by the plaintiffs and the court below need not individually carry so much weight in the analysis.  As with constitutional racial vote dilution cases, the intent element of a claim is where plaintiffs will often flounder—and it is the causal connection of invidious intent to an otherwise permissible redistricting decision or action that makes the resulting effect unconstitutional.

The objection to all of this is, of course, that most or all politicians try to suppress their opponents when redistricting, and so an intent requirement isn’t a realistic barrier to a claim.  But this gets the institutional role of the Court and the progression of history backwards.  The behavior of legislators must evolve to satisfy what the Constitution demands.  The Constitution does not meter its demands to match the Court’s low expectations of legislators.  The Court did not hold racial suppression to be legitimate simply because many officeholders were openly racist and so a dilution claim was “unrealistic.”  The Court stated what the Constitution required, and the floor statements, districting decisions, and legislative conduct evolved to try and avoid the new claims.

Nowadays, many legislators gerrymander (racially and politically) in order to achieve partisan ends.  To claim that this is the natural and unavoidable state of affairs is to ignore the Court’s own role in shaping that state of affairs and the Court’s duty to prevent the rampant and open violation of voters’ constitutional rights.

Would recognizing the illegitimacy of invidious partisan intent eliminate all legislative attempts to pursue electoral advantages?  Of course not.  But one need not indulge Pollyannaish notions about the limits of judicial intervention to believe that political claims would—like racial claims—mitigate the frequency, cultural acceptance, and impact of such odious behavior.  “[E]ven legislators unarmed with political data and mapping software will have an instinctual sense of where their support lies and may be tempted to nudge boundaries in their favor.”  Proof of intent and effect may be difficult to cobble together in such instances, and minor transgressions are likely to go undetected and unvindicated.  But in such a world, the mere existence of a constitutional claim still acts as its own constraint on unlawful legislative behavior, forcing legislators to justify their decisions to the public on neutral and legitimate bases and encouraging legislative majorities to avoid overreaching for fear of losing in court.

This may seem like new territory, but the basic constitutional principles found in racial gerrymandering law apply with equal force in the case now pending before the Court.  Waiting on just the other side of Kennedy’s hypothetical is a clear logical progression: invidious partisan intent is unconstitutional; legislators here acted with such invidious intent; and voters’ ability-to-elect was negatively impacted because of the government’s targeting for suppression.

A new claim (or claims) might result in a fair number of plans being struck down initially as legislators adapt to new norms and expectations, but once the state of the law is settled the explanation for “the intelligent man on the street” becomes simple.  No gobbledygook, no baloney, and only a touch of turmeric.  That’s an outcome that would be good for voters and the Court’s reputation.

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.

 

Raines Check: Legislator Standing and the Separation of Powers

Excited to have a post up today on Take Care Blog discussing Raines v. Byrd and the impact of separation-of-powers principles on legislator standing in the congressional emoluments lawsuit:

In Raines, a group of Senators and Representatives brought a lawsuit claiming that the Line Item Veto Act—which Congress had passed over their nay votes—was unconstitutional because it diluted their legislative power. . . . As the Raines Court observed, “the law of Art. III standing is built on a single basic idea—the idea of separation of powers.”  The decision revolved around this structural principle and was animated by a respect for judicial boundaries and the need to let the political process play out with each branch fulfilling its constitutionally assigned role.

In the congressional emoluments case, respect for structural concerns leads to the opposite result.  Failing to accord standing would undermine separation-of-powers principles; draw each branch beyond its proper constitutional sphere; and allow the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial branch to shirk their constitutionally assigned duties.

Head on over to Take Care Blog to read the full piece.

The Right to Withhold Consent: Legislator Standing and the Emoluments Clause

When CREW launched its emoluments lawsuit back in January, I—among others—wondered whether the plaintiffs’ standing theory would hold up in court.  At the time, I floated a different approach: “Why not add a Member of Congress as a plaintiff for a backup standing theory?  (i.e., ‘I have a right to vote on consent?’)”  Five months later, almost 200 Members of Congress have filed a lawsuit demanding precisely that.

While nonprofits, hoteliers and restaurant groups, and State Attorneys Generals have already brought claims, the congressional plaintiffs bring three new vital elements to the mix: a specific right provided in the text of the clause, a claim that aligns with the purposes of the clause, and an administrable and ministerial judicial remedy.

The Foreign Emoluments Clause prohibits the President, “without the consent of the Congress,” from “accept[ing] any present [or] emolument . . . of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.”  The purpose of the clause is to prevent foreign influence and corruption of our government, and the clause fulfills this purpose by subjecting any benefits flowing from foreign states to U.S. officials to a process of explicit congressional approval.  By preventing any emoluments from being received unless and until consent is provided, the clause provides a default protection against foreign influence absent positive approval by Congress.

The unique positive nature of the textual requirement establishes an individual right in Members of Congress to provide or withhold consent.  And, by requiring congressional approval before emoluments are formally received by the executive, the Constitution sets out specific structural constraints to ensure accountability and transparency.  Just as the Constitution’s “advice and consent” provisions play a critical structural role in the separation of powers, the Foreign Emoluments Clause protects public interests and individual liberties by mandating certain procedural checks and balances.

The positive nature of the structural consent requirement also demonstrates why the clause does not present a “political question.”  As Joshua Matz has ably pointed out, the argument that Congress may take action if it so desires—and therefore no judicial remedy is permitted or required—would “rewrite and invert” the clear textual command of the clause.  The clause’s default setting in the absence of congressional action is to prohibit the acceptance of emoluments, not permit them.  Congressional inaction creates an absolute constitutional bar.

The congressional lawsuit also reflects a close fidelity to constitutional principles when one considers the implied cause of action, the relevant zone of interest, the potential remedies available, and the separation-of-powers questions raised by judicial intervention.  However much hoteliers may be harmed by (and have standing due to) unlawful competition, no one has argued that the clause was included in the Constitution because the Founders were worried that the President of the United States might undercut the wine sales and conference bookings of his fellow citizens.  As such, one might argue (as the DOJ has) that an implied cause of action should not arise in such circumstances.  Nor might federal courts feel particularly comfortable as a remedial matter ordering the President to rearrange his financial affairs in a particular manner or making delicate substantive judgment calls about which emoluments pose a threat of corrupting foreign influence.

Yet, the Founders did create a mandatory mechanism to protect the public at large from these threats, and the remedy is to protect the procedural right of legislators to grant or withhold consent. Thus, as far as remedies are concerned, the courts need only define “emoluments” and prohibit the president from receiving them absent congressional approval.  A benefit meeting the definition could be held in trust until an affirmative vote of Congress allows the President to “accept” it.  Thus, the injunctive relief would be strictly ministerial and administrative, with sensitive political judgments reserved for the legislature.  Such an approach would vindicate the rights granted to Congress, adhere to the structural balance struck by the clause, and protect the purposes for which the clause was adopted while ensuring that the judiciary did not intrude upon the proper executive or legislative domains in the process.

The Foreign Emoluments Clause fulfills critical public purposes through a mandatory process designed to ensure transparency and accountability through structural constitutional requirements.  These checks and balances create a default prohibition on the receipt of foreign emoluments in the absence of congressional consent.  Individual Members of Congress possess a constitutional right to provide—or withhold—that consent, and if the Constitution’s default prohibition is being violated in the interim, those Members should be able to seek a judicial remedy.  The lawsuit filed today would provide just that.

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.

(more…)

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 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.)