Justia U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Election Law
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Reversing the Tenth Circuit, the Court held that states may impose a sanction on "faithless electors" who pledge to vote for the nominee of their political party in the presidential election and fail to do so. The Court cited its contemporaneous opinion, Chiafalo v. Washington. View "Colorado Dept. of State v. Baca" on Justia Law

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When Americans cast ballots for presidential candidates, their votes actually go toward selecting members of the Electoral College, whom each state appoints based on the popular returns. With limited exceptions, states appoint a slate of electors selected by the political party whose candidate has won the state’s popular vote. Most states compel electors to pledge to support that party's nominee and remove a “faithless elector” from his position; a few impose a monetary fine on any elector who flouts his pledge.Three Washington electors violated their pledges to support Hillary Clinton in 2016 and were fined $1,000 apiece. The Electors challenged their fines, arguing that the Constitution gives members of the Electoral College the right to vote however they please. The Washington Supreme Court rejected their claims.The Supreme Court affirmed. A state may enforce an elector’s pledge to support his party’s nominee—and the state voters’ choice—for President. Article II, Section 1 gives the states the authority to appoint electors “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.” The power to appoint an elector includes the power to condition his appointment, including requiring that electors pledge to cast their Electoral College ballots for the party’s presidential nominee. States can demand that an elector actually live up to that pledge, on pain of penalty.Nothing in the Constitution expressly prohibits states from taking away presidential electors’ voting discretion. Article II’s use of the term “electors” and the Twelfth Amendment’s requirement that the electors “vote,” “by ballot,” do not establish that electors must have discretion. From the first elections under the Constitution, states sent electors to the College to vote for pre-selected candidates, rather than to use their own judgment. The electors rapidly settled into that non-discretionary role. Ratified at the start of the 19th century, the Twelfth Amendment acknowledged and facilitated the Electoral College’s emergence as a mechanism not for deliberation but for party-line voting. View "Chiafalo v. Washington" on Justia Law

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To slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wisconsin’s Governor ordered Wisconsinites to stay at home until April 24. An unprecedented number of voters requested absentee ballots for the state’s spring election, resulting in a severe backlog of ballots not promptly mailed to voters. Plaintiffs, including the Democratic party, sued the Wisconsin Elections Commission and, on April 2, obtained a preliminary injunction that extended the deadline for voters to request absentee ballots and extended the deadline for election officials to receive completed absentee ballots.On the day before the April 7 election, the Supreme Court stayed the preliminary injunction to the extent it required Wisconsin to count absentee ballots postmarked after April 7. The Court declined to address “the wisdom of” proceeding with the scheduled election, opting to answer “a narrow, technical question.” While the deadline for the municipal clerks to receive absentee ballots is extended to April 13, those ballots must be mailed and postmarked by election day.The plaintiffs had not asked that the court allow ballots postmarked after election day to be counted; the court unilaterally ordered that such ballots be counted if received by April 13. That extension would fundamentally alter the nature of the election and would afford relief that the plaintiffs did not seek. In its order enjoining the public release of any election results for six days after election day, the district court essentially enjoined nonparties. The Court noted no evidence that voters who requested absentee ballots at the last minute would be in a substantially different position from late-requesting voters in other Wisconsin elections with respect to receiving ballots; the deadline for receiving ballots was extended to ensure that their votes count. The Court declined to express an opinion on whether other election procedure modifications are appropriate in light of COVID–19. View "Republican National Committee v. Democratic National Committee" on Justia Law

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Alaska law limits the amount an individual can contribute to a candidate for political office, or to an election-oriented group other than a political party, to $500 per year. Alaska Stat. 15.13.070(b)(1). Plaintiffs contributed the maximum amounts permitted but wanted to contribute more. They challenged the limits under the First Amendment. The district court and Ninth Circuit upheld the statute as furthering a “sufficiently important state interest” and “closely drawn” to that end. The Supreme Court vacated and remanded, citing its precedent in Randall v. Sorrell (2006), which invalidated a Vermont law that limited individual contributions on a per-election basis to $400 to a candidate for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, or other statewide office, $300 to a candidate for state senator, and $200 to a candidate for state representative. A contribution limit that is too low can “prove an obstacle to the very electoral fairness it seeks to promote.” Alaska’s $500 individual-to-candidate contribution limit is substantially lower than limits that have previously been upheld; the individual-to-candidate contribution limit is substantially lower than comparable limits in other states. Alaska’s $500 contribution limit applies uniformly to all offices while other states have limits above $500 for candidates for Governor and Lieutenant Governor. Alaska’s contribution limit is not adjusted for inflation and is the same as it was 23 years ago. View "Thompson v. Hebdon" on Justia Law

Posted in: Election Law
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North Carolina plaintiffs claimed that the state’s congressional districting plan discriminated against Democrats. Maryland plaintiffs claimed that their state’s plan discriminated against Republicans. The plaintiffs cited the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause, the Elections Clause, and Article I, section 2. The district courts ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. The Supreme Court vacated, finding that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts because they lack “judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving [them].” Citing the history of partisan gerrymandering, the Court stated that the Constitution assigns electoral districting problems to the state legislatures, expressly checked and balanced by the Federal Congress, with no suggestion that the federal courts had a role to play. “To hold that legislators cannot take their partisan interests into account when drawing district lines would essentially countermand the Framers’ decision to entrust districting to political entities.” The Constitution does not require proportional representation, and federal courts are neither equipped nor authorized to apportion political power as a matter of fairness. Deciding among the different visions of fairness poses basic questions that are political, not legal. There are no legal standards discernible in the Constitution for making such judgments. The Court distinguished one-person-one-vote and racial gerrymandering cases as susceptible to legal standards. Any assertion that partisan gerrymanders violate the core right of voters to choose their representatives is more likely grounded in the Guarantee Clause, which “guarantee[s] to every State in [the] Union a Republican Form of Government.” That Clause does not provide the basis for a justiciable claim. View "Rucho v. Common Cause" on Justia Law

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After the 2010 census, Virginia redrew legislative districts for its Senate and House of Delegates. Voters sued, claiming racial gerrymandering. The House of Delegates intervened. The district court held that 11 districts were unconstitutionally drawn, enjoined Virginia from conducting elections for those districts before adopting a new plan, and gave the General Assembly several months to adopt that plan. Virginia’s Attorney General announced that the state would not appeal.The Supreme Court dismissed an appeal by the House for lack of standing. To establish standing, a litigant must show a concrete and particularized injury, that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct and is likely to be redressed by a favorable decision. Standing must be met at every stage of the litigation. To appeal a decision that the primary party does not challenge, an intervenor must independently demonstrate standing. The state itself had standing to appeal, and could have designated agents to do so, but did not designate the House to represent its interests. Under Virginia law, authority to represent the state’s interests in civil litigation rests exclusively with its Attorney General. The House has consistently purported to represent only its own interests and lacks standing to appeal in its own right. A judicial decision invalidating a state law does not inflict a discrete, cognizable injury on each organ of government that participated in the law’s passage. Virginia’s Constitution allocates redistricting authority to the “General Assembly,” of which the House constitutes only a part. The issue is the constitutionality of a concededly enacted redistricting plan, not the results of the chamber’s poll or the validity of any counted or uncounted vote. Redrawing district lines may affect the chamber’s membership, but the House as an institution has no cognizable interest in the identity of its members. View "Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill" on Justia Law

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North Carolina redistricted state legislative districts. Plaintiffs alleged that the General Assembly racially gerrymandered their districts in an ostensible effort to comply with the Voting Rights Act; 28 districts comprised majorities of black voters. The Supreme Court affirmed judgment for the plaintiffs but vacated the district court’s remedial order, which directed the General Assembly to adopt new districting maps, shortened by one year the terms of the legislators currently serving the gerrymandered districts, called for special elections in those districts, and suspended two provisions of the state Constitution. On remand, the district court ordered the General Assembly to draw remedial maps. The General Assembly complied, directing its map drawers to make “[r]easonable efforts . . . to avoid pairing incumbent members” and not to use “[d]ata identifying the race of individuals or voters.” The plaintiffs argued that four legislative districts still segregated voters on the basis of race and objected to redrawing five districts in Wake and Mecklenburg Counties, which did not violate the Constitution, and did not abut a district violating the Constitution, so that the revision of the borders constituted mid-decade redistricting in violation of the North Carolina Constitution. The district court appointed a Special Master to redraw the lines of the districts and ultimately adopted the Master’s recommended reconfiguration; the court credited the Master’s submission that his “‘remedial districts were drawn not with any racial target in mind, but in order to maximize compactness, preserve precinct boundaries, and respect political subdivision lines,’” and that the map was the product of “‘explicitly race-neutral criteria.’”The Supreme Court first rejected an argument that gerrymandering claims ceased to exist when the General Assembly enacted remedial plans and repealed the old plans. It is the segregation of the plaintiffs, not the legislature’s line-drawing, that gives rise to their claims. The court did not abuse its discretion by arranging for the Special Master to draw up a remedial map instead of giving the General Assembly another chance nor by adopting the Special Master’s recommended remedy. While the 2017 legislature instructed its map drawers not to look at race, the district court engaged in detailed, fact-finding and found sufficient circumstantial evidence that race was the predominant factor governing the shape of the districts. The court’s allowance that the Special Master could “consider data identifying the race of individuals or voters to the extent necessary to ensure that his plan cures the unconstitutional racial gerrymanders,” does not amount to a warrant for “racial quotas.” The Court affirmed with respect to four districts but reversed with respect to districts in Wake and Mecklenburg Counties, which was unrelated to racially gerrymandered districts. View "North Carolina v. Covington" on Justia Law

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In 2011, Texas adopted a new congressional districting plan and new districting maps for the state legislature. The Equal Protection Clause forbids “racial gerrymandering,” but Texas is also subject to section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which is violated when a state districting plan provides “less opportunity” for racial minorities “to elect representatives of their choice.” Texas was also subject to section 5, which barred it from making any districting changes unless it could prove that they did not result in retrogression with respect to the ability of racial minorities to elect the candidates of their choice.The plan was challenged in a Texas district court. Texas submitted the plans for preclearance to the District of Columbia Circuit. For the upcoming primaries, the Supreme Court instructed the Texas court to start with the 2011 plans and make adjustments required by the Constitution and the VRA. The Texas court adopted new interim plans, which, after the D.C. Circuit denied preclearance, were used for the 2012 elections. The state repealed the 2011 plans and enacted the Texas court’s plans with minor modifications. After the Supreme Court’s 2013 "Shelby County" holding, Texas, no longer covered by section 5, obtained a vacatur of the preclearance order. The Texas court allowed a challenge to the 2013 plans and held that challenges to the 2011 plans remained live. Texas conducted its 2014 and 2016 elections under the 2013 plans. In 2017, the Texas court found defects in several districts in the 2011 federal congressional and State House plans; invalidated multiple Congressional and House Districts in the 2013 plans, holding that the Legislature failed to cure the “taint” of discriminatory intent allegedly harbored by the 2011 Legislature; held that three districts were invalid because they had the effect of depriving Latinos of the equal opportunity to elect their candidates of choice; found that HD90 was a racial gerrymander; and gave the state attorney general three days to respond.Assuming jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. 1253, the Court concluded that the orders qualify as interlocutory injunctions; the short time frame the attorney general was given indicated that the court did not intend to allow the elections to go ahead under the plans it had condemned. The Texas court erred in requiring the state to show that the 2013 Legislature purged the “taint” attributed to the never-used plans enacted by a prior legislature. The “good faith of [the] state legislature must be presumed.” The 2011 Legislature’s intent and the court’s interim plans, weighed with other evidence, “is plainly insufficient to prove that the 2013 Legislature acted in bad faith and engaged in intentional discrimination.” The Court reversed as to the three districts in which the Texas court relied on section 2’s “effects” test but affirmed that HD90 is a racial gerrymander. For a section 2 “effects” claim, a plaintiff must establish a geographically compact minority population sufficient to constitute a majority in a single-member district, political cohesion among the members of the minority group, bloc voting by the majority to defeat the minority’s preferred candidate, and that the district lines dilute the votes of the minority group. View "Abbott v. Perez" on Justia Law

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Republican voters alleged that Maryland’s Sixth Congressional District was gerrymandered in 2011 in retaliation for their political views. Six years after the General Assembly redrew the District, plaintiffs sought to enjoin election officials from holding congressional elections under the 2011 map. The district court denied the motion and stayed further proceedings pending the Supreme Court’s disposition of partisan gerrymandering claims in Gill v. Whitford. The Supreme Court affirmed. In granting a preliminary injunction a court must consider whether the movant has shown “that he is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, that the balance of equities tips in his favor, and that an injunction is in the public interest.” Plaintiffs made no such showing. They did not move for a preliminary injunction until six years, and three general elections, after the 2011 map was adopted, and three years after their first complaint was filed. The delay largely arose from a circumstance within plaintiffs’ control. In considering the balance of equities, that unnecessary, years-long delay weighed against their request. The public interest in orderly elections also supported the decision. Plaintiffs represented to the court that any injunctive relief would have to be granted by August 18, 2017, to ensure the timely completion of a new districting scheme in advance of the 2018 election season. Despite the court’s undisputedly diligent efforts, that date had passed by the time the court ruled. There was also legal uncertainty surrounding any potential remedy for the asserted injury; the court reasonably could have concluded that a preliminary injunction would have been against the public interest and might have had a needlessly disruptive effect on the electoral process. View "Besinek v. Lamone" on Justia Law

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Members of the Wisconsin Legislature are elected from single-member legislative districts. The legislature redraws district boundaries following each census. After the 2010 census, the legislature passed Act 43. Democratic voters alleged that Act 43 harms the Democratic Party’s ability to convert Democratic votes into Democratic legislative seats by “cracking” certain Democratic voters among different districts in which those voters fail to achieve electoral majorities and “packing” other Democratic voters in a few districts in which Democratic candidates win by large margins. They cited an “efficiency gap” that compares each party’s respective “wasted” votes, i.e., votes cast for a losing candidate or for a winning candidate in excess of what that candidate needs to win. The district court enjoined application of Act 43 and required redistricting. The Supreme Court vacated for lack of standing. A plaintiff may not invoke federal-court jurisdiction unless he can show “a personal stake in the outcome,” by proof that he has suffered the “invasion of a legally protected interest” that is “concrete and particularized.” If the plaintiffs’ alleged harm is the dilution of their votes, that injury is district-specific, not statewide. A plaintiff who complains of gerrymandering, but who does not live in a gerrymandered district, “assert[s] only a generalized grievance.” Claims that their votes have been diluted require revising only such districts as are necessary to reshape the voter’s district. Statewide injury to Wisconsin Democrats is a collective political interest, not an individual legal interest. Injury-in-fact is not based on intent but requires proof of a burden on the plaintiffs’ votes that is “actual or imminent," not ‘hypothetical. Studies showing that Act 43 skewed Wisconsin’s statewide map in favor of Republicans do not address the effect that a gerrymander has on the votes of particular citizens. The Court remanded to give the plaintiffs an opportunity to prove concrete and particularized injuries to their individual votes. View "Gill v. Whitford" on Justia Law