Category: Federalism

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.

 

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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