SCOTUS: Ultimate Political Power Resides with The People

Created: 29 June, 2015
Updated: 15 October, 2022
4 min read
On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the use of an independent redistricting commission to decide how electoral districts are drawn in Arizona. The 5-4 decision validated the citizen initiative process, which Arizona voters used to implement the state's independent redistricting commission in 2000, ruling that it was "invented in full harmony with the Constitution's conception of the people as the font of government power."

"Both parts of the Elections Clause are in line with the fundamental premise that all political power flows from the people," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg writes in the court's opinion, citing McCulloch v. Maryland.

Voters in Arizona approved Proposition 106 in 2000, which amended the state constitution to take redistricting power away from the state legislature and gave it to an independent redistricting commission. The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission (AIRC) consists of five members, four of whom are chosen by the legislature from a list compiled by a state agency. The fifth member is chosen from that same list by the other four members and is the commission's chairperson.

The Republican-controlled Arizona State Legislature filed a lawsuit in 2012, challenging the constitutionality of the AIRC after it approved new electoral maps in 2010 that some argue favored Democrats. The Legislature argued that by giving redistricting authority to the AIRC, the people usurped the powers granted to the legislative body by the Elections Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The AIRC tried to get the case dismissed on lack of standing, but a three-judge district court panel denied this request.

The fundamental issue in this case is how the high court interprets the phrase, "by the Legislature thereof” in Article I, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution (also known as the Elections Clause):

"The times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations, except as to the places of choosing Senators." - U.S. Constitution

The district court ruled that 'Legislature' in this instance can be interpreted to include a voter-mandated commission that exercises the state’s redistricting power independently of the legislative body.

"[T]wo of the judges on the three-judge district court panel held that lawmaking power, according to Arizona’s constitution, included the power to enact laws by ballot initiative, which in turn made Arizona’s independent redistricting commission legitimate under the Elections Clause. (Arizona State Legislature, 997 F. Supp. 2d at 1056.)," IVN correspondent Daniel Kim writes.


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The Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's decision on both grounds: (1) the state had standing to challenge the constitutionality of the AIRC, "having lost authority to draw congressional districts"; and (2) "lawmaking power in Arizona includes the initiative process, and that both §2a(c) and the Elections Clause permit use of the AIRC in congressional districting in the same way the Commission is used in districting for Arizona’s own Legislature."

The dissenting opinion from Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito, argues that if 'Legislature' was meant to mean anything other than a state's representative body of lawmakers, there would have been no reason to ratify the Seventeenth Amendment, which transferred power to elect U.S. senators from 'the Legislature' of each State, Art. I, §3, to 'the people thereof.'”

Roberts cites 17 provisions in the U.S. Constitution referring to the "Legislature" of a state that he argues cannot possibly be read to mean "the people."

"Arizona’s Commission might be a noble endeavor — although it does not seem so “independent” in practice — but the 'fact that a given law or procedure is efficient, convenient, and useful . . . will not save it if it is contrary to the Constitution.' INS v. Chadha, 462 U. S. 919, 944 (1983)," Roberts writes.

While some of the justices argued that it was not the place of the high court to rule on the matter, including Justice Scalia, who said he would have rejected the case on jurisdiction, the Supreme Court has upheld the people's fundamental right to decide how they are governed. Ginsburg argued that by implementing the independent redistricting commission, "Arizona voters sought to restore 'the core principle of republican government,' namely, 'that the voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around.'"

Read the full decision, including the court's opinion and the dissent opinions:

Photo Credit: M Dogan / shutterstock.com

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