Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

SCOTUS upholds “one person, one vote”

Good news.

In a unanimous decision released Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to uphold Texas’ current system for drawing legislative districts so that they are roughly equal in population.

The Supreme Court’s ruling is a victory for legislators — mostly Democrats — who represent districts with significant populations of people who are not eligible to vote: primarily children and non-U.S. citizens.

[…]

The case brought together dozens of state legislators who signed on to briefs arguing in Texas’ favor. Members of the House of Representatives’ Mexican American Legislative Caucus and the Texas Senate Hispanic Caucus argued that the legal challenge represented a direct attack on their constituents, many of whom are ineligible to vote because they do not hold citizenship status. In order to accommodate thousands of additional eligible voters necessary to achieve district parity under Evenwel and Pfenninger’s plan, their districts would soar in size so much that their ability to represent their constituents effectively would be diminished, they said.

The Supreme Court acknowledged that argument in the majority ruling.

“As the Framers of the Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment comprehended, representatives serve all residents, not just those eligible or registered to vote,” Ginsburg wrote. “Nonvoters have an important stake in many policy debates — children, their parents, even their grandparents, for example, have a stake in a strong public education — and in receiving constituent services, such as help navigating public-benefits bureaucracies.”

“By ensuring that each representative is subject to requests and suggestions from the same number of constituents, total population apportionment promotes equitable and effective representation,” the ruling concluded.

See here, here, and here for the background. ThinkProgress celebrates the win, but notes that the battle has not been fully settled.

Yet, while [Edward Blum, the conservative activist behind this lawsuit] did not prevail today, some ominous signs for Latino communities in states like Texas can be found in Ginsburg’s opinion. Ginsburg repeatedly uses language suggesting that states have some discretion to decide how to divvy up representation within the state. She writes that “it is plainly permissible” to divide up districts as Texas has done, and that “states and localities may comply with the one-person, one-vote principle by designing districts with equal total populations.”

That leaves an open question — whether states also may comply with one person/one vote by designing districts in the way that Blum would prefer. Ginsburg’s opinion does not answer that question. Nor does a separate opinion by Justice Samuel Alito, which states that “whether a State is permitted to use some measure other than total population is an important and sensitive question that we can consider if and when we have before us a state districting plan that, unlike the current Texas plan, uses something other than total population as the basis for equalizing the size of districts.”

Nevertheless, it is reasonably likely that Texas, or some other conservative state, will test this proposition in short order. Why wouldn’t the sort of lawmakers who embrace tactics like partisan gerrymandering and voter ID laws try to shift representation towards more conservative white communities if they can get away with it?

The practical effect of Evenwel, in other words, may simply be to shift Blum’s advocacy away from the Supreme Court and towards state legislatures.

Rick Hasen, however, is not very concerned about that.

Justice Ginsburg’s opinion holds that districting using total population was consistent with constitutional history, the Court’s own decisions, and longstanding practice. A long section of Justice Ginsburg’s opinion recounts constitutional history, and relies on the fact that for purposes of apportioning Congressional seats among states, total population, not total voters, must be used. Plaintiffs’ argument in Evenwel was inconsistent with this practice. As to the Court’s own precedents, Justice Ginsburg acknowledged language supporting both total voters and total population as possible bases, but Court’s practice has been to look at total population in its cases. Further, that is the practice that states uniformly use, despite the occasional case such as Burns v. Richardson, allowing Hawaii to use a registered voter level.

Finally, Justice Ginsburg gives a sound policy reason for a total population rule. In key language, she writes that “Nonvoters have an important stake in many policy debates—children,, their parents, even their grandparents, for example, have a stake in a strong public-education system—and in receiving constituent services, such as help navigating public-benefits bureaucracies. By ensuring that each representative is subject to requests and suggestions from the same number of constituents, total population apportionment promotes equitable and effective representation.” A footnote following this states that even though constituents “have no constitutional right to equal access to the their elected representatives,” a state “certainly has an interest in taking reasonable, nondiscriminatory steps to facilitate access for all its residents.”

Perhaps the most important aspect of Justice Ginsburg’s opinion, and especially notable because it attracted the votes of not just the liberals but also Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy, is the Court’s refusal to give Texas the green light to use total voters if it wants in the next round of redistricting. The Court simply put the issue off for another day. It is hard to stress enough what a victory this is for liberal supporters of voting rights. Many of us thought Burns already gave Texas this power. The fact that the Court leaves that issue open will serve as a deterrent for states like Texas to try to use total voters in the next round of redistricting, because it will guarantee major litigation on the question.

SCOTUSBlog sums up:

The ruling’s bottom line was unanimous, but the main opinion bore many signs that its warm embrace of the theory of equality of representation had to be qualified by leaving the states with at least the appearance of the power of choice, to hold together six solid votes.

Two of the eight Justices were clearly not satisfied with the rhetoric and some of the implications of Justice Ginsburg’s opinion, and only joined in the outcome. Those were Justices Samuel A. Alito, Jr., and Clarence Thomas, each of whom wrote separately. Thomas also joined most of Alito’s opinion.

Had Justice Ginsburg not held five colleagues in support of what her opinion actually said in the end, two — perhaps Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy — might have abandoned the common result. The result then might have been that the Court would have split four to four, settling nothing and releasing no opinion at all while leaving intact a three-judge federal district court’s ruling that Texas had the authority to base its state legislative seats on a division of the total population of Texas.

Texas actually had wanted the Court to allow it to use a total population metric, but to go further and give the states explicit constitutional permission to map out districts with equal populations of voters. The Obama administration also had wanted the Court to rule that the Constitution actually required total population as the starting point for redistricting. Neither persuaded the Court to go take those further steps.

I’m sure Blum and his ilk will never go away, but at least as far as this goes, they would appear to have a steep hill to climb to win in a subsequent attempt to do something like this. For that we can be glad. A statement from Sen. Sylvia Garcia, whose Senate district would have been greatly affected by this lawsuit, is here, and a statement from the Mexican American Legislative Caucus is here. Daily Kos, the Brennan Center, Trail Blazers, Kevin Drum, TPM, the Lone Star Project, ThinkProgress, the Chron, and the Current have more.

UPDATE: More from The Nation and The Atlantic.

Related Posts:

2 Comments

  1. Mainstream says:

    The opinion may allow legislatures to consider fairness to voters when structuring future districts. You can win a seat in the legislature with half the votes in some parts of town than in others. If you subscribe to the theory that the representative elected in the lower turnout election is handling constituent concerns and advocating for policies for the underage, those in prison not eligible to vote, those who are not US citizens, then perhaps this seems fair.

    I think using citizens of voting age as the population base might be a better system, as Blum has long advocated.

    At a minimum, the discretion afforded to legislatures in equalizing population for districts ought to be exercised in a way that softens the inequity that Gene Green only has half or 70% as many voters as John Culberson to whom to account.

  2. […] here for the background. I don’t expect a zealot like Edward Blum to go away – this is his […]