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.


On “Hamilton Electors” and the Lessig/Hasen Debate

Professors Lawrence Lessig and Rick Hasen–two titans of the political law world–recently got into a public debate over the legitimacy of presidential electors voting in a way different from how their votes were pledged.  Despite my decidedly non-titan status, this is a blog about government structure and process, so I suppose it’s worth weighing in: both seem wrong in my view.

The debate opened with Lessig writing this article in the Washington Post.  In it, Lessig first notes the historical role and purpose of the electors: to act with independence and exercise judgment in determining who should become president.  The electoral college is, in Lessig’s words, a “safety valve” or “circuit breaker” to ensure that the judgment of the people is “reasonable.”  But then Lessig goes one step further.  He claims that, based on the “fundamental principle of one person, one vote,” the electors should “respect the equal vote by the people” and “ratif[y]” the result of the popular vote outcome on Dec. 19 by voting for Clinton.

In a post on his Election Law Blog, Hasen pushed back on both points.  “First, the electors in the electoral college are not chosen to exercise judgment but to translate the will of the people in each state. If we had a system where we expected them to exercise independent judgment we would spend time vetting them.  Instead, they are generally loyal party members.  Second, relying on the national popular vote to overturn the results of the electoral college seems unfair even if, like me, you believe the electoral college is unfair. The election was run under the electoral college system. Would Clinton have won if both sides were going to run up the popular vote? Perhaps, but it is not a given. This seems to go against rule of law ideas that we all abide by the rules for an election set in advance. Turning the electors into mighty platonic guardians doesn’t seem to be the right way to go.”

The truth, in my view, is somewhere in between: the electors retain a critical function and have a duty to exercise independent and considered judgment, but this does not mean automatically choosing the national-popular-vote winner based on the principle of “one-person, one-vote.”

Professor Lessig gets the history and purpose of the electoral college right.  Regardless of whether we should reform our method of choosing president and adopt a national-popular-vote system, the current system places the actual election of president in the hands of the college.  Hasen argues that we shouldn’t “turn the electors into mighty platonic guardians,” but this misses the point: the electors are, in a limited sense, already platonic guardians.  (As Lessig notes in reply.)  As Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 68,

“It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided. This end will be answered by committing the right of making it, not to any preestablished body, but to men chosen by the people for the special purpose, and at the particular conjuncture.

It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations. . . . Their transient existence, and their detached situation, already taken notice of, afford a satisfactory prospect of their continuing so, to the conclusion of it.”

The Founders designed the electoral college system to serve a particular purpose and advance certain values.  They did not choose a method that automatically accorded a certain weight to the popular result in each state, just as they did not choose a method that automatically accorded the presidency to the winner of a national popular vote.  Thus, arguing that the electors should follow the popular result in their own states without any exercise of judgment (as Hasen does) is just as baseless as arguing that the electors should follow the popular result on a nationwide basis based on automatic application of one-person, one-vote principles (as Lessig does).  Both of these arguments defeat the very purpose of having an electoral college in the first place.

Hasen is right to point out that we cannot rely on the national-popular-vote total alone.  As he states, “The election was run under the electoral college system. Would Clinton have won if both sides were going to run up the popular vote? Perhaps, but it is not a given.” But, those who argue that “the rules are the rules,” that the electoral college was in place at the time of the presidential race, and that, therefore, the winner of the electoral college should win the presidency cannot suddenly turn around and argue that the electoral college isn’t allowed to function as it was designed to function.   

This, in effect, seems to be Hasen’s position.  He argues that “the electors in the electoral college are not chosen to exercise judgment but to translate the will of the people in each state” and that if “we expected them to exercise independent judgment we would spend time vetting them.”  The fact that we expect them to automatically adopt the popular result in each state does not mean that they historically have done this or now must do this.  If the popular vote in the state results in a qualified, reasonable candidate–as it historically has–then there would be no grounds for the electors to step in and do anything other than ratify that choice.  But make no mistake, they have retained the option not to ratify that choice since the electoral college was conceived.  And if their historical consistency in ratifying the popular choice has caused us to lapse in our duty to vet them, that would be our fault, not theirs.

After all, many states have passed “faithless elector” laws that provide for the punishment of electors who deviate from the statewide popular vote results.  Why pass these laws at all unless you recognize that the electors, in fact, retain the capacity to vote otherwise?

Hasen also points out that electors nowadays are “generally loyal party members.” But that makes the idea of someone “going rogue” even more important.  If a party loyalist finds his or her party’s own candidate so unqualified that he or she cannot in good conscience vote for the candidate, that should tell us something.  The electoral college need not be comprised of full-fledged “platonic guardians” who completely disregard the popular vote results to still serve its core function: conducting a separate, thorough, discerning evaluation of the candidate to determine whether they are a qualified and reasonable choice for the highest office in the country.

The Constitution was adopted with the electoral college as the method for choosing president.  Unless and until we reform our method of choosing president, that is the process we operate under.  And this approach was specifically devised to ensure the election of a qualified individual.  As Hamilton wrote, in attempting to convince the state conventions to ratify the Constitution and the electoral college process in the first place:

“The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States.”

We have all cast our votes.  Now, we must let the electors cast theirs.  As Hasen said: “The election was run under the electoral college system.”  Those electors are charged with a most sober, solemn, and serious duty.  Is that to vote for Trump?  Clinton?  Or another option?  We’ll soon find out.

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.



The Year Ahead in Racial and Political Gerrymandering Law

When President Obama called for an end to gerrymandering in his final state of the union, it was a rare moment of primetime coverage for a typically arcane subject: redistricting. But this topic is getting increased attention, especially after 97% of incumbents who chose to run were returned to office this year despite the electorate’s strong “anti-establishment” sentiment. Political writers have called the last round of post-census redistricting “the most audacious political heist of modern times,” celebrities (such as Zach Galifianakis) have taken up the cause, and activists in several states have legislative reform efforts underway.

The debate is also unfolding in the courts, with partisan and non-partisan groups engaging in a multi-front legal battle over racial and political gerrymandering. Although the war over congressional and state redistricting maps is likely to continue for many years to come (and will heat up in the aftermath of the 2020 census), the year ahead holds significant developments for legislators designing maps, litigators challenging maps, and the voters and candidates who must live with the consequences of the evolving law in this space. At stake is the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act as applied to redistricting, the reconciliation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, the practical ability of legislators to comply with the law, the balance-of-powers problems raised by the “judicialization” of the redistricting process, the collateral consequences of racial gerrymandering decisions on other racial justice initiatives, and the potential for political gerrymandering claims to upturn partisan maps nationwide—all issues that take on fresh urgency with the future direction of the Supreme Court becoming clear.