Category: Rights

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.

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.

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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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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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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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Today, I’m Thankful for: Whitford v. Gill

In a recent post, this blog examined the most significant racial and political gerrymandering cases unfolding in the year ahead. And, just in time for Thanksgiving, the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin has issued an historic decision in one of those cases—Whitford v. Gill (3:15-cv-421)—and has struck down a state legislative redistricting plan as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander for the first time ever. This is something we can all be thankful for, and special thanks are due to the Campaign Legal Center, which helped bring the case, and Nick Stephanopoulos and Eric McGhee, who set out the “efficiency gap” test put forth in the case.

Although the parties are yet to brief the district court on the proper remedy to be applied, an appeal to the Supreme Court is undoubtedly forthcoming. There, the case will await review along with Harris v. McCrory (16-166), which is likely to be heard or decided in the aftermath of the Court’s decision in McCrory v. Harris (15-1262). What are the odds that the decision is upheld? Let’s carve into the district court’s meaty opinion (sorry, give me one holiday pun), and find out.

 

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