Tag Archives: redistricting

The Future of Redistricting

At 10 a.m. on Tuesday, October 3, the Supreme Court Justices will take the bench and the Chief Justice will call for arguments in Gill vs. Whitford — a case on direct appeal from a three-judge panel in which the majority of the panel found that the legislative districts in Wisconsin were the results of an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.  Then, on Friday, the justices will discuss the case in conference, and — depending on the vote — either Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy will assign this case to one of the justices to write the opinion.  Then — probably in February or March — we will get a series of opinions (with possibly no opinion having the support of five justices) that will define the rules for the next cycle of redistricting starting in 2021.

This case has its roots in the framing of the Constitution.  The original structure of the British parliament awarded a certain number of seats to each incorporated borough (town) and to each shire (county).  When combined with the fact that only freeholders (property owners) had the right to vote, by the middle of the Eighteenth Century, there were boroughs that were very small with only a handful of voters (so-called “rotten boroughs”).   The non-representative nature of the British Parliament was one of the reasons why colonists did not accept the argument that they were represented by the British Parliament.  In drafting the U.S. Constitution, at least for the House of Representatives, the framers decided that representation in Congress would depend upon population based on a decennial census.

By requiring that representation in the House would be based on representation, the Constitution created a de facto requirement that states draw new congressional districts (at least when a state’s representation changed).  Some, but not all, states also based representation in state legislatures on population — again requiring periodic redistricting.  In simply requiring redistricting, the U.S. Constitution was ahead of its time.  Now, most countries that use a first-past-the-post system also have periodic redistricting.  The vast majority of them also use a non-partisan commission with specific criteria to draw fair and competitive district lines.  The framers, however, did not have the extra two centuries of seeing what works and what doesn’t work in the redistricting process.  And it is some of what happened next in the U.S. that has led the other countries to have neutral agencies handle redistricting. Continue Reading...

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Supreme Court 2017-18 Term Preview: Part III (Remaining Cases)

In Part I and Part II, we looked at the cases that have already been scheduled for an argument.  This post will look at the cases for the remainder of the term.

As of this point in time, the Supreme Court has not yet announced the schedule of the cases that will be argued in December.  (The December argument session actually begins the Monday after Thanksgiving, November 27.)  There are six available dates for argument and ten cases available.  (To get to ten available cases, the Supreme Court granted review in the middle of August to replace one case that was dismissed.)  It is possible that some of the ten cases may end up in January, particularly if they do not accept many cases over the next several weeks for January.  (The briefing schedule typically requires at least three months between the Supreme Court granting review and the argument.  As such, the January argument docket will come from the cases already granted and the additional cases added between now and October 16.)

As with the previous posts, some of the cases available for argument in December are somewhat technical issues that will not get a lot of public attention. Continue Reading...

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Supreme Court 2017-18 Term Preview: Part I (October arguments)

It’s mid-September which means that the Supreme Court will soon be returning to Washington for this year’s term.  The Supreme Court, for the most part, controls what cases it will schedule for full briefing and oral argument.  For this fall, the Supreme Court has a total of twenty-eight cases (actually a little more, but several cases have been consolidated) available for argument over seventeen argument days.  They have posted the schedule of cases for October and November with the remaining cases likely to be scheduled for December (although some may be heard in January).  It is unclear if the low number of cases is the product of the time that it took to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court or is the continuation of the long-term trend under the last three Chief Justices to gradually reduce the number of cases heard.    However, the numbers tend to support the “reducing the docket” theory.  While the January “holdover” cases are slightly low (only three), the number of cases on which the Supreme Court granted review in February and March are close to average.  The real “below average” months are the months after Justice Gorsuch took the bench.

This part will look at the cases currently scheduled for argument in the  “October” session beginning on October 2.  As in past years, I will be focusing mostly on the “political” case, those dealing with elections or with heated public policy issues.  These cases aren’t the entirety of the Supreme Court docket.  A lot of the Supreme Court docket deals with resolving conflicts over the interpretation of interpretation of federal statutes or handling criminal justice issues.  These cases do not get a lot of media attention, but they do matter to the persons impacted by them.

Of the ten cases on the October docket, three deal with immigration issues.  Two of the cases (Dimaya) and (Jennings) are rearguments from last year.  The belief is that these cases were probably 4-4 splits, but that might not be the case for Jennings. Continue Reading...

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Redistricting Advanced Course

We are four years away from the next full round of redistricting.  The redistricting process is a combination of federal law, state law, and local politics.  The fact that there are legal rules governing the process means that individuals who do not like one of the many maps (congressional, state senate, state house, county commission, city council) can bring a court challenge to that map.  When discussing federal law, there are two crucial provisions — the Fourteenth Amendment and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.  (Additionally, there is some suggestion that the First Amendment may have an impact on certain types of gerrymanders.)  This week the Supreme Court issued an opinion on North Carolina’s congressional districts that attempted to reconcile the Fourteenth Amendment and the Voting Rights Acts.

The background of this case is that, two decades ago, the Supreme Court (in a case involving North Carolina) held that a racial gerrymander — one in which race played a significant role in the drawing of the lines — would be subject to strict scrutiny (the most state unfriendly form of review — requiring showing of both a “compelling interest” justifying the use of race and that the use of race was “narrowly tailored” to meet that compelling interest).  Over the years, the Supreme Court has clarified that, to trigger state scrutiny, race must be the predominate factor in drawing the lines.  The Supreme Court has also clarified that Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act can be a compelling interest.

North Carolina currently has three Democratic representatives in Congress — from the 1st district, the 4th district, and the 12th district.  Before the last round of redistricting, African-Americans represented around 48% of the voting age population (BVAP in election law jargon) of the 1st district and 43% of voting age population of the 12th.  That BVAP was enough to make African-Americans into a very significant segment of the Democratic primary vote in those districts and there are enough white Democrats in those districts that — even in bad years nationally, the Democratic candidate gets well over 60% of the vote in those districts.  In short, African-Americans could get their preferred candidate selected in those districts even though they did not have 50% of the vote.  In the trial court, North Carolina conceded that they did take race into account in drawing the 1st district but claimed that they did so to meet Section 2 (that is by making the 1st district into a majority-minority district),  On the 12th district, North Carolina claimed that they did not draw that district to pack it with African-Americans but rather to pack it with Democrats.  However, there was some evidence that — at least for one county in the district — they did expressly consider race and, also, that they used race as a proxy for partisanship.  Additionally, the 12th was already compliant with “one man, one vote” even if North Carolina had kept the old district lines and the changes added mostly African-Americans while removing mostly whites. Continue Reading...

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Supreme Court 2016-17: Forthcoming Opinion Watch

Like much in government (including the school-year that many of us remember from growing up), the Supreme Court follows a cyclical calendar.  Beginning with the first Monday in October, the Supreme Court has seven argument sessions each year.  Each session is two weeks followed by a recess.  Five of these recesses are for two weeks, but the recesses taken over Christmas and after the January arguments are usually for four weeks.  During these approximately thirty weeks, the Supreme Court is engaged in three basic tasks:  1) reviewing applications from parties that want their cases heard by the Supreme Court; 2) preparing for and holding arguments in those cases that have been accepted; and 3) writing opinions.  Because the task of preparing for arguments (reading the written arguments of counsel and reviewing the record from the trial court to get an idea of the “facts” underlying to which the law has to be applied) is time consuming, opinions tend to slowly dribble out during these first thirty weeks.  As a result, when the arguments end in late April (or early May depending upon the calendar), there are typically a significant number of cases still waiting for opinions.

During this year’s term, as is not unusual, there were a handful of opinions issued in December and January (a total of six) with the number going up slightly during February, March, and April (a total of twenty-one so far with the possibility of several more on Monday before the Supreme Court leaves for its final recess.  However, with arguments for the year having wrapped up this past Wednesday, there are currently thirty-eight cases in which opinions have not yet been issued.  While there are some exceptions to the rule, by this time of year, the Supreme Court has issued opinions in most of the cases heard last Fall.  During the argument portion of the year, it takes between two and six months to get an opinion.  The simple cases in which there is unanimous agreement among the Justices (which represent about half of the cases) tend to come quickly.  When the Justices disagree, the process stretches out as the Justices in the minority draft opinions responding to the majority opinion, and the majority opinion then makes changes to address the issues raised by the minority (and so on until everyone believes that no further changes are needed).    The bottom line is that, at this point of the year, opinions have been issued for all of the October arguments, for about two-thirds of the November and December arguments, for about half of the January and February arguments, and for none of the March and April arguments.  The expectation, especially for the remaining cases from November and December, is that the delay represents some significant disagreement in the early cases.

Before going into the highlights of what is left to come down — either on Monday or more likely between mid-May and the end of June when the Supreme Court returns from its last recess — one point to make.  Justice Gorsuch only participated in the arguments for this last two-week session.  The tradition is that a Justice does not vote in cases heard before the Justice joined the Supreme Court.  However, it is not unusual to schedule a case for re-argument if the a Justice joins the Court after argument and the vote of the eight Justices who heard the case is split 4-4. Continue Reading...

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The Never-ending Battle — Redistricting 2011

One of Charles Dickens’s lesser known novels is “Bleak House,” dealing with a legal case over an estate that lasted so long and was so expensive that the expenses of the case exceeded the value of the estate.  The same is unfortunately true of disputes over the redistricting process.   We are now almost six years into the current ten-year cycle of district lines.  The run-up to the next cycle begins with elections in several states this year and next that will pick some of the governors and legislators that will be in office in 2021 when the redistricting process begins again.  You would think that, by this point of the cycle with three congressional elections and two or three state legislative elections (depending on the state) under the new lines, all court cases about those lines would be over.  Unfortunately, we are not at that point yet.

This week, the Supreme Court decided the most recent redistricting case (and it has another one under submission).  This week’s decision involved the Virginia House and whether the  drawing of its lines represented a “racial gerrymander” that violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  The key issues in a racial gerrymander case is whether race is the predominate reason for the drawing of the lines of a particular district and (if race is the predominate reason) whether there is a sufficiently compelling reason for the reliance on race.  Such a challenge focuses on particular district lines.

In this case, the challenges concerned twelve districts.  The original three judge panel found that race was only the predominate reason for one of the twelve districts.  In part, this decision relied on the fact that the other eleven districts did not have unusual shapes and the lines could be justified by “traditional” redistrict considerations.  While the panel found that race was the predominate explanation for the twelfth district, the panel found that the need to bump up minority votes in that district to survive pre-clearance (as the Virginia lines were drawn before the Supreme Court abolished the pre-clearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act) was a sufficiently compelling reason. Continue Reading...

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Supreme Court — Immigration and Redistricting

This past week was the first week of the April argument session — the third since the death of Justice Scalia and the last of this term.  Next week will be the last three argument days of the term (with the last argument concerning the conviction of Former Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia — with the primary issue being which type of  “favors” by a government official will support a conviction under the statutes involved).  After Wednesday, the remainder of the term will be issuing opinions and accepting cases for next term.  This week was bookended by two cases of interest to the issues covered by this site.  On Monday, the Supreme Court heard arguments on President Obama’s decision to defer deportation of certain unauthorized immigrants.  On Wednesday, the Supreme Court issued its opinion on the Arizona redistricting plan.

The issues in the case challenging the President’s immigration policy falls into three categories:  1) do the States have “standing” (the right to bring the case); 2) was the policy guidance the type of the decision that had to go through the formal notice and comment procedures of the Administrative Procedure Act (the rules governing the issuance of formal regulations); and 3) are some elements of the policy so contrary to immigration law as to constitute a violation of those laws rather than the operation of executive discretion in the enforcement of the law).  As shown by the transcript of the argument, the majority of the argument focused on the issue of standing.

Standing is a key concept in the law tied to the constitutional requirement that courts only decide “cases and controversies.”  The basic principle is that a person can only file a law suit if they are in some way “injured” by the action that they are challenging.  Thus, while you might not like the microbrewery in your town selling out to a big conglomerate, you do not have standing to challenge that merger unless you own stock in one of the two or can somehow demonstrate how that sale effects a legally-recognized interest that you have.  Traditionally, states have a right to sue on things that adversely impact their governmental interests, but do not have the right to sue because the voters of their state disagree with a decision.  When multiple parties join together in a case, the case can continue as long as one of them has standing.  In recent years, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court have taken a narrow view of standing — one of the many doctrines that conservatives have used to keep cases out of court. Continue Reading...

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Green Light for Redistricting Commissions

In several states, voters (not trusting their legislators to be able to resist “stacking the deck” when drawing congressional district boundaries) have opted to take that power away from their legislators and place it with a non-partisan commission.  Today, in a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court found that the U.S. Constitution gave the voters of the states the right to choose this method for drawing congressional district lines.

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Supreme Court Decisions: The Final Week

Today, the Supreme Court issued four opinions, leaving seven cases still pending from this year.  They also announced that they will be issuing opinions on Thursday and Friday.  With two more opinion days this week, there is a significant chance that the last of the opinions will be issued on Friday, but it is slightly more likely that the last one or two will come on Monday (with a slim chance of a second opinion day next week).  Additionally, with today’s opinions, it is possible to make a good guess on who has which case.

From January, it is all but certain that Justice Kennedy has the Fair Housing case.  That is not necessarily good for civil rights activists, but there were worse possibilities.

Continue Reading...

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Supreme Court and Equality

Today, the United States Supreme Court issued two opinions, both 5-4 decisions with the majority opinion authored by Justice Breyer, in cases involving equality issues.

The first case, Young vs. United Parcel Service, involved Title VII (precluding discrimination in employment based on race or gender).  Specifically, it involved the interpretation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act — an amendment to Title VII passed in the 1970s after the Supreme Court had originally ruled that discriminating based on the fact that an employee was pregnant or might get pregnant was not discrimination based on gender.  The generally understood intent of Congress was that an employer could not discriminate against an employee simply because the employee was pregnant or might get pregnant.  The particular provision at issue in the case was the requirement that employers had to treat pregnant workers the same as other workers who are similar in their ability to work or not work.  The employee in this case had a medical restriction due to her pregnancy that limited the weight that she could lift.  This weight limit was less than what UPS expected its drivers to be able to lift; so the employee asked for the company to accommodate her condition, but UPS refused.  The employee claimed that the decision violated Title VII because UPS was willing to make that accommodation for other drivers who had a medical restriction.

The majority (by one vote) decided in favor of the employee.  But rather than following the spirit of the law — requiring an accommodation unless it was unreasonable if the employer granted a similar accommodation to other workers — the majority crafted a balancing test to determine what workers are similar.  Under this balancing test, the fact that an employer was willing to accept a medical restriction for other workers (for example, one who got injured on the job) would merely be one factor in determining whether the distinction that the employer makes between pregnancy and other conditions that require accommodation is based on a  legitimate reasons or whether the reason given seems to be a pretext for discriminating against pregnant women. Continue Reading...

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