Legislatures v. The People: SCOTUS to Rule on Who Has Ultimate Power over Elections

Although the midterm election fever has largely subsided, the courts are heating up over the issue of redistricting and gerrymandering lawsuits. For the 2014 term, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear three cases on redistricting commissions, and the Florida Supreme Court has also heard its own case over redistricting.

Elections are contentious contests and at the heart of these arguments is who has the power to draw district lines that influence the outcomes on Election Day. All of these cases before various courts around the country signal a growing unrest over the debate about who controls the power of elections — political parties or voters?

On November 12, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama and Alabama Democratic Conference v. Alabama. Still slated to be heard on their docket is Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. And in early September, the Florida Supreme Court heard Pat Bainter, et al., as Non-Parties v. League of Women Voters of Florida, et al.

In the Alabama cases, the issue is over majority-minority districts. The Legislative Black Caucus argues that the Legislature used race too heavily in the redrawing of district lines, thereby concentrating minority voters in districts designed to maintain majority-minority status.

However, the Legislature claims “the new districts do not “pack” black voters in districts or otherwise discriminate on the basis of race.”

The Alabama Democratic Conference is also appealing a lower court’s decision that the State Legislature did not violate the constitution in drawing the new district lines. In its appeal to the Supreme Court, the group argues that the Legislature practiced unconstitutional redistricting practices based on race which utilized racial quotas in redrawing district lines.

The Supreme Court justices have heard oral arguments for both cases and according to Robert Barnes of The Washington Post, it appears the main question they will tackle in their decision is whether the Alabama State Legislature “had partisan gerrymandering goals in mind.”

Chief Justice Roberts reflected on the state’s duty, noting states have to “hit a sweet spot” by having strong enough majority-minority districts without packing too many minorities into those districts.

In Arizona, the State Legislature is challenging the creation of an Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) to retain the power of drawing district lines. In its appeal to the Supreme Court, the Legislature argues that the Independent Redistricting Commission is a violation of the Election Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which states:

“The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof…” – Election Clause, U.S. Constitution

The court’s decision to hear Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission rests on hearing arguments for the interpretation of the word “Legislature.”

In its motion to the Supreme Court to dismiss the case, the IRC writes, “Since statehood, the Arizona Constitution has reserved for the “people” the power to “propose laws and amendments to the constitution” by initiative and referendum.”

The IRC calls into question the legitimacy of the Legislature’s standing, claiming state lawmakers are not acting on behalf of the people, but on behalf of their own self-interests. At stake is the constitutionality of independent redistricting commissions and the ability of the people to decide — through ballot initiatives — how elections are run. Who holds ultimate power in the state: voters or the legislature?

 

Do Independent Redistricting Commissions Pass Constitutional Muster?

In July 2014, a Florida judge threw out the state’s redistricting plan from 2012 on the basis that Republicans “conspired to manipulate the boundaries to protect the party’s majority in Washington” and “made a mockery” of the rules of transparency in the process.” The Circuit Court ordered the state to redraw the district lines.

In November, the Florida Supreme Court ordered 538 of the trial’s documents to be made available and they became public on December 1. Political consultant Pat Bainter lobbied to keep the documents private for two years, but lost out to the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in Pat Bainter, et al., as Non-Parties v. League of Women Voters of Florida, et al.

While only Arizona and Alabama have cases before the Supreme Court this term, all states will be effected by the outcome of the high court's decisions.
Ashley Lopex of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting wrote, “The head of a GOP consulting group (Bainter) forced by court order to release documents showing his company may have been illegally used to redraw political districts, including evidence the company tried to hide its involvement by using third parties, is defending his and the company’s actions.”

The arguments and the Supreme Court’s willingness to hear these cases legitimizes the concern over the conflict of interest state legislatures may have when determining the very districts that get them elected. The rise of independent redistricting commissions reflects a substantial shift in the people’s willingness to hand over that power to the state legislatures.

Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, and Washington all have purely commission-based redistricting processes. New Yorkers also just passed a constitutional amendment in November, creating a redistricting commission to draw lines for State Senate, Assembly, and congressional districts.

Clearly, the cases the Supreme Court has added to its docket will have repercussions on the future of independent redistricting commissions. While only Arizona and Alabama have cases before the Supreme Court this term, all states will be effected by the outcome of the high court’s decisions, ultimately dictating who has the power to draw district lines.

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