Courts Reject Lawsuit Challenging U.S. Senate’s Filibuster Rule

Today is Election Day in the U.S. Most public opinion polls and political commentators say that the Republican Party is likely to emerge from the election with at least a simple majority in the U.S. Senate, i.e., more than 50 Senate seats. As a Democrat I lament this likely result and probably should be glad that the Senate’s filibuster rule will provide the Democrats in the Senate with a means to block at least some of the Republican-backed measures in the next Session of Congress. But I am not pleased with the possible use of the filibuster by the Senate Democrats. I have believed, and still believe, that the filibuster rule is an abomination and should be eliminated, as has been discussed in many prior posts.

Such elimination, however, will not come from the courts.

As discussed in a prior post, on May 14, 2012, Common Cause, a non-profit organization, joined by four members of the U.S. House of Representatives and three private citizens commenced a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of U.S. Senate Rule XXII that requires at least 60 votes to stop debate and proceed to a vote on the merits of a bill or other proposal. In other words, the rule that permits filibusters.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Colombia on December 21, 2012, dismissed the complaint in the case. (Common Cause v. Biden, 909 F. Supp. 2d 9 (D.D.C. 2012).) The court held that none of the plaintiffs had standing to bring the case and that the case presented a non-justiciable political question. This decision also was covered in a prior post.

On April 15, 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Colombia Circuit unanimously affirmed the dismissal of the complaint, but on different grounds.

According to the Court of Appeals, the plaintiffs failed to sue the proper defendant: the U.S. Senate or a U.S. Senator. The reason this was not done is apparent. The U.S. “Constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause provides that ‘for any Speech or Debate in either House,’ Senators and Representatives ‘shall not be questioned in any other Place.’ U.S. CONST. art I, § 6. The Clause confers immunity for any act that falls ‘within the sphere of legitimate legislative activity.’ Eastland v. U.S. Servicemen’s Fund, 421 U.S. 491, 503 (1975); see also Kilbourn v. Thompson, 103 U.S. 168, 204 (1880) (the Clause covers all ‘things generally done in a session of the House [or Senate] by one of its members in relation to the business before it’). And it protects not only elected legislators but their aides, to whom legislative work is delegated. See Gravel v. United States, 408 U.S. 606, 616-18 (1972). That is, the Clause covers aides when their conduct ‘would be a protected legislative act if performed by the Member himself.’ Id. at 618.”

As a result, the Court of Appeals held it had no jurisdiction to decide the case on the merits.

On November 3, 2014, the case ended with the U.S. Supreme Court’s denial of the plaintiffs’ petition for a writ of certiorari, i.e., refusal to hear the case on the merits. (Common Cause v. Biden, No. 14-253 (U.S. Sup. Ct. Nov. 3, 2014).)

Common Cause immediately issued a statement criticizing the Supreme Court’s action. Its President, Miles Rapoport said, “The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear Common Cause’s case challenging the constitutionality of the U.S. Senate’s filibuster rule is both shortsighted and ominous. Instead of protecting debate, the 60-vote filibuster rule has shut down discussion on important legislation, from a living wage to addressing climate change.” Rapoport added, “the extreme use of the filibuster has led to partisan gridlock and dysfunction that ultimately robs the American people of a Senate that should be responsive to the needs of our country.” Moreover, “the Supreme Court let stand a DC Circuit Court of Appeals decision that makes it logically impossible to challenge Senate rules that violate the Constitution.”

Although I share Common Cause’s disappointment in the failure to have the filibuster rule eliminated, I am not surprised by the courts’ refusal to treat the issue on the merits. Indeed, courts in our constitutional system should not be deciding issues like this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Federal Appellate Court Allows Lawsuit by Guantanamo Detainees

On February 11th the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in Washington, D.C. ruled, 2 to 1, that the federal courts had jurisdiction over habeas corpus petitions by three detainees challenging their being subjected to force-feeding at  the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Therefore, the court reversed the district court’s dismissal of the petitions and remanded the cases to that court for further proceedings. (Aamer v. Obama, No. 13-5223 (D.C. Cir. Feb. 11, 2014).)[1]

These claims arose after a major hunger strike at Guantánamo a year ago. Detainees who lost sufficient weight were forced to eat a nutritional supplement.

The Majority Opinion

1. Federal courts’ jurisdiction.

The key issue for the court was whether habeas jurisdiction was forbidden by section 7(1) of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 (“MCA”), which provided as follows:

  • “No court, justice, or judge shall have jurisdiction to hear or consider an application for a writ of habeas corpus filed by or on behalf of an alien detained by the United States who has been determined by the United States to have been properly detained as an enemy combatant or is awaiting such determination.”
Judge David S. Tatel
Judge David S. Tatel

In reaching its conclusion that this provision did not foreclose jurisdiction, the court in an opinion by Circuit Judge David S. Tatel that was joined by Circuit Judge Thomas B. Griffith started with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Boumediene v. Bush, 553 U.S. 723 (2008).

In Boumediene the Supreme Court held that this statutory section was unconstitutional under Article One, Section 9, Clause 2 of the U.S, Constitution (the Suspension Clause), which states, “The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” This was so, held the Supreme Court, because there was no other means for a Guantanamo detainee to attempt to show that he was being held pursuant to an erroneous application or interpretation of relevant law before a court with the power to order his conditional release.

The next step in the analysis was determining that the D.C. Circuit’s own subsequent decisions had decided that Boumediene had invalidated section 7(1) of the MCA for all habeas petitions by Guantanamo detainees. As a result, the determinative issue for the majority in Aamer was whether these petitioners’ claims were the sort that properly could be raised in habeas petitions.

The circuit court then concluded that these claims were properly within the scope of habeas corpus. This was so, the majority stated, because (a) the Supreme Court had suggested that habeas covers claims challenging conditions of confinement while leaving the issue open for that Court’s decision in a future case; (b) the D.C. Circuit’s own binding precedents had established that “one in custody may challenge the conditions of his confinement “ by a habeas petition; and (c) “the weight of the reasoned precedent” in other circuits had reached the same conclusion.

2. Preliminary injunction.

The detainees on appeal also challenged the district court’s denial of their requests for preliminary injunctive relief against their force-feeding, but the D.C. Circuit affirmed that denial because they had not shown likelihood of success on the merits.

This was so even though the appellate court said,”[W]e have no doubt that force-feeding is a painful and invasive process that raises serious ethical concerns.” But “it is not enough for us to say that force-feeding may cause physical pain, invade bodily integrity, or even implicate petitioners’ fundamental individual rights.”

The majority in Aamer recognized that this claim for injunctive relief had to be evaluated under Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987), which held that “the legality of a prison regulation that ‘impinges on’ an inmate’s constitutional rights” must be upheld if it “’is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.’”

Here, said the majority, the government had asserted two penological interests: “preserving the lives of those in its custody and maintaining security and discipline in the detention facility.”  These were legitimate interests as “the overwhelming majority of courts have concluded . . . that absent exceptional circumstances prison officials may force-feed a starving inmate actually facing the risk of death.”

The Dissent

Senior Judge Stephen F. Williams’ dissenting opinion concluded that the majority should have followed what he deemed to be Congress’s intentions in enacting the MCA and affirmed the dismissal of the cases. Congress, he said, “unmistakably sought to prevent the federal courts from entertaining claims based on detainees’ conditions of confinement.” “Such evident congressional intent would seem to counsel a cautious rather than a bravura reading” of whether such claims fell into the category of habeas corpus lawsuit.

Conclusion

We now wait to find out what the government will do. Ask the entire D.C. Circuit (en banc) to rehear the case?   Petition the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case? Or return to the district court and litigate the claims there?

The majority in this case emphasized that they were only addressing the likelihood of the petitioners’ succeeding on their claims for preliminary injunctive relief, and not the actual merits. But the majority’s analysis and language, in my opinion, suggests that it is highly unlikely that the petitioners would succeed on the merits.

This case is not the only one involving Guantanamo detainees before the D.C. Circuit.

On February 21, 2014, Judge Tatel joined by Circuit Judges Janice Rogers Brown and A. Raymond Randolph heard oral arguments in an appeal from a dismissal of a complaint for money damages by six such detainees against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former U.S. military officials for alleged torture, religious abuse and other mistreatment at Guantanamo. (Allaithi v. Rumsfeld, No. 13-5096 (D.C. Cir.).) The main issues in this case are the following:

  • whether the claims are barred by the Westfall Act (28 U.S.C. sec. 2679), which makes lawsuits against the U.S. the exclusive remedy for injury “arising or resulting from the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any [government] employee while acting within the scope of his office or employment;” and
  • whether the defendants are immune from such a suit.

A decision on this case should issue later this year.


[1] The D.C. Circuit’s opinion was reported in the New York Times and Associated Press. Judge Tatel is a University of Chicago Law School classmate and friend of the blogger.

U.S. Supreme Court Invalidates Key Provision of Voting Rights Act of 2006

U.S. Supreme Court Building
U.S. Supreme Court Building

 

As widely reported, the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder recently held unconstitutional a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 2006.[1]

That provision, section 4, which was part of the original statute enacted in 1965, established a formula to determine which states were subject to pre-clearance by the U.S. Department of Justice or a three-judge federal district court of any changes to the state’s voting procedures. Such pre-clearance approval could be obtained only if the proposed change was shown to have neither “the purpose [nor] the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color.”

Section 4’s formula, as amended in 1975, established as “covered jurisdictions” those States or political subdivisions that had maintained a test or device (literacy or knowledge tests, good moral character requirements, vouchers from registered voters, providing English-only voting material s in places where over 5% of voting-age citizens spoke a language other than English) as a prerequisite to voting as of November 1, 1972, and had less than 50% voter registration or turnout in the 1972 presidential election.

Majority Opinion

Chief Justice John Roberts
Chief Justice John Roberts

The opinion for the Court by Chief Justice John Roberts (joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito) held that this formula imposed current burdens on the covered jurisdictions that were not justified by current needs. Section 4, therefore, violated basic principles of equal state sovereignty or autonomy over voting and was unconstitutional. This conclusion was reached even though the Chief Justice acknowledged that “voting discrimination still exists.”

The fundamental factual premise of the opinion was the assertion that the U.S. had significantly changed in racial discrimination in voting since 1965. As the Chief Justice said, “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”[2]

Dissenting Opinion

Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Justice Ginsburg, who was joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan, issued a stinging dissenting opinion.

She emphasized that the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution granted to Congress, not the courts, the power to enact legislation to enforce the Amendment’s  ban on racial discrimination in voting. Moreover, the Supreme Court itself repeatedly has held that Congress’ judgment on such matters warrants “substantial deference” and that congressional power is “at its height” when it so acts.

As a result, the proper question for the courts is whether Congress had employed “rational means” in re-enacting section 4 as part of the 2006 Act. According to the dissenting opinion, section 4 meets that test. There was abundant evidence of continued racial discrimination in voting before Congress when it adopted the 2006 Act, and Congress acted with “great care and seriousness” in so doing.

Indeed, Justice Ginsburg stressed, the formula in section 4 is subject to statutory provisions “allowing jurisdictions to ‘bail out’ of preclearance, and for court-ordered “bail ins.” These mechanisms were seen by Congress as “effective means of adjusting the [Act’s] coverage over time.” Therefore, the dissent asserted it is erroneous for the Court’s majority to see the Act as “static, unchanged since 1965. Congress designed the [statute] to be a dynamic statute, capable of adjusting to changing circumstances.”

In short, the dissent says, “Hubris is a fit word for today’s demolition of the [statute].” The majority of the Court “errs egregiously by overriding Congress’ decision.”

Conclusion

The key failure of the majority opinion for me is its narrow focus on the coverage formula in section 4 instead of looking at how the formula works in the statute as a whole. As Justice Ginsburg and previously the D.C. Circuit emphasized, the coverage formula has to be seen with the statutory mechanisms for adjusting coverage to new circumstances through the bail-in or bailout provisions. It is dynamic and capable of adjusting to new circumstances.

Indeed, the Supreme Court did just that in 2009 in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. One v. Holder. The Court’s opinion by Chief Justice Roberts provided a broad reading of the bail out provision to allow the political subdivision in the case to bailout from coverage under sections 4 and 5.


[1] The Supreme Court opinions in Shelby County are available online. Prior posts have discussed the original Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Voting Rights Act of 2006, a prior Supreme Court decision on the latter statute (Northwest Austin), the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Shelby County and the recent Supreme Court oral argument in that case.

[2] Justice Thomas issued a concurring opinion that section 5 of the Act was unconstitutional as well.

 

Judging on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the second most important court in the U.S., is once again back in the news.

"Sri" Srinivasan
“Sri” Srinivasan

The immediate issue is the need for the U.S. Senate to confirm President Obama’s appointment of Srikanth “Sri” Srinivasan to one of the four vacancies on this Court.[1]

Srinivasan has a blue-chip resume. Currently he is the Principal Deputy Solicitor General of the U.S. and has argued 20 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He previously clerked for the Reagan-appointed Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. He also served with distinction in the Justice Department for both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and with the Washington, D.C. office of the eminent law firm of O’Melveny & Myers. A native of India, Srinivasan grew up in Kansas and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1989 from Stanford University and a J.D./M.B.A. degree in 1995 from its Law School and Graduate School of Business.

On April 10th Srinivasan had an uneventful 90-minute hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. His nomination is strongly supported by the Obama Administration and by noted conservative and liberal lawyers and academics.

The next step is for the Committee to vote on whether to send this nomination to the Senate floor for a vote. At least one of the eight Republican members of the Committee, Orrin Hatch, said he was impressed and would support such a motion. Assuming all 10 Democratic Committee members support such a motion, then it should be approved by a vote of at least 11 to 7. Then the whole Senate would vote on the nomination unless there was a filibuster of same.[2]

Perhaps the partisan wrangling over appointments to this Court is overwrought.

Senior Judge David B. Sentelle
Senior Judge David B. Sentelle

Evidence for a less partisan view of this Court is found in its April 5th Presentation Ceremony of the Portrait of D.C. Circuit Senior Judge David B. Sentelle, who was appointed to the Court in 1987 by Republican President Ronald Reagan. For remarks of appreciation from his own Court, Judge Sentelle chose Circuit Judge David S. Tatel, who was appointed by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1994.[3]

Judge David S. Tatel
Judge David S. Tatel

Judge Tatel commented on the apparent oddity of his speaking for Judge Sentelle.  Tatel said, “those who believe that judges’ decisions are driven by ideology may wonder why Dave [Sentelle] asked me to speak. After all, you would be hard pressed to find two judges with more different backgrounds, different worldviews, different beliefs, and, indeed, different shoes than we two Davids. But those who focus on these differences do not understand what it means to be a federal judge, do not understand this Court’s long tradition of collegiality, and surely do not understand Dave Sentelle.”  Tatel continued, “when Judge Sentelle and I sit together, we very rarely disagree.” In “the nineteen years we’ve served together, we have disagreed less than 3% of the time.”

The answer to why there had been so little disagreement, according to Judge Tatel, was “Judge Sentelle’s decisions are driven not by personal preferences, but by a conscientious application of the principles and texts that bind us. Uncommonly peppered with the hallmarks of restrained decision-making, his opinions are full of phrases like, ‘If the intent of Congress is clear, that is the end of the matter’; ‘Courts must accord substantial deference to Congress’s findings’; ‘We are bound by the decisions of the Supreme Court’; ‘One three judge panel has no authority to overrule another’; ‘We owe agency fact-finding great deference’; ‘Issues not raised on appeal are deemed waived’; and ‘Absent jurisdiction we are powerless to act.’ For Judge Sentelle, “the tenets of judicial restraint are not mere slogans to be invoked when convenient; they are the building blocks of all that we do here.”

Judge Tatel also complimented Judge Sentelle’s judicial opinions. According to Tatel, Judge Sentelle “crafts opinions that treat every one of his colleagues, as well as every citizen who appears before us, with respect and a true generosity of spirit. Flipping through his opinions, including his dissents, you’ll find no sarcasm, no belittling remarks, no callous dismissals. This is, after all, a United States Court, and Judge Sentelle’s opinions are a credit to the dignity of this institution. In his five years as our Chief Judge, Dave has protected our proudly nurtured tradition of collegiality.”

In conclusion, Judge Tatel said, Judge Sentelle is “a man who has the greatest respect for the office he holds and an abiding dedication to a life of service and the rule of law.”


[1] President Obama’s only other eminently qualified nominee to the court, Caitlin J. Halligan, was named in 2010 to fill the vacancy created by the elevation of John G. Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court. In March of this year Republicans for a second time mounted a filibuster that prevented the Senate from voting on Ms. Halligan, and President Obama granted her request to withdraw her nomination saying, “This unjustified filibuster obstructed the majority of Senators from expressing their support. I am confident that with Caitlin’s impressive qualifications and reputation, she would have served with distinction.” Her nomination was supported by the New York Times and Washington Post .

[2] If the Srinivasan nomination is filibustered , then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has threatened to modify the Senate Rules to bar such filibusters on at least judicial nominees. I frequently have voiced my strong disapproval of the filibuster rule and practice.

[3] Judge Tatel is a University of Chicago Law School classmate and friend of mine, and I have written a post about his opinion for the D.C. Circuit in the Voting Rights Act case now pending in the U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. Supreme Court Shows Unjustified Hostility to the Voting Rights Act of 2006

On February 27, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, No. 12-96, which raises the following issue:

  •  “Whether Congress’ decision in 2006 to reauthorize [for 25 years] Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act [of 1965] under the pre-existing coverage formula of Section 4(b) of [that] Act [requiring certain states to obtain preclearance from the U.S. Department of Justice or a special federal court for any changes in their election laws] exceeded           its authority under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and thus violated the Tenth Amendment and Article IV of the United States Constitution.”[1]

As has been frequently reported, during the argument Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy asked questions and made comments strongly suggesting that they were prepared to invalidate this statutory provision,[2] a conclusion that already had been reached by Associate Justice Clarence Thomas in a prior case. If this is a correct reading of the recent argument, then there would be at least a 5-4 majority on the Court to declare the provision unconstitutional.

According to Linda Greenhouse, a leading Supreme Court follower, the “goal of [the petitioner] Shelby County and [apparently a majority] . . . on the Supreme Court is to depict Section 5 as an anachronism, a needless cudgel held by the big bad federal government over the head of a transformed South.“

Here are just a couple of examples of that attitude from the argument.

Chief Justice John Roberts
Chief Justice         John Roberts

Chief Justice Roberts asked or, as Greenhouse put it, “taunted” the U.S. Government’s lawyer (Solicitor General Donald Verrilli) with the following questions (and Roberts’ own answers) apparently to express Roberts’ belief that Mississippi has a better record than Massachusetts on black voter registration and turnout and that the Voting Rights Act provision at issue is no longer needed and, therefore, unconstitutional:

  • “Do you know how many submissions there were for preclearance to the Attorney          General in 2005?” (Roberts: “3700.”)
  • “Do you know how many objections the Attorney General lodged?” (Verrilli: “There          was one in that year.”)
  •  “[D]o you know which State has the worst ratio of white voter turnout to African American voter turnout?” (Roberts: “Massachusetts.”)
  •  “[W]hat [state] has the best, where African American turnout actually exceeds white       turnout?” (Roberts: “Mississippi.”)
  •  “Which State has the greatest disparity in registration between white and African American?” (Roberts: “Massachusetts. Third is Mississippi, where again the African American registration rate is higher than the white registration rate.”)
  •  “[I]s it the government’s submission that the citizens in the South are more racist             than citizens in the North?”  (Verrilli: “It is not.”)

Roberts did not identify the source of his statistics, but afterwards the Massachusetts Secretary of State, William F. Galvin, and political scientists speculated that Roberts drew his conclusions from the U.S. Census Bureau’s “The Current Population Survey,” which collects information on voting and registration every other year. This data, however, should not be used in the way that Roberts did because of their large margins of error, as reported by Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio.

Indeed, Secretary Galvin said that Roberts’ assertion about Massachusetts and Mississippi is just plain wrong and that the only way that the Census Bureau source supports Roberts’ assertion is by including Massachusetts’ non-citizen blacks who are not entitled to vote. To do what Roberts did, according to Galvin, is “deceptive” and “a slur on black voters in Massachusetts.”

Nate Silver, the statistician, also criticizes Roberts’ trumpeting these figures about Mississippi and Massachusetts apparently to justify a conclusion that the Voting Rights Act provisions in question are no longer needed and, therefore, unconstitutional.

According to Silver, “If [Roberts] . . . meant to suggest that states covered by Section 5 consistently have better black turnout rates than those that aren’t covered by the statute, then his claim is especially dubious.” Moreover, says Silver, it is outright fallacious to conclude from this simple comparison of two states, however flawed the data, that the provisions of section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and the formula in section 4(b) are no longer needed. For example, such data say nothing about whether whatever gains have been made in racial minority voting “might be lost if the Section 5 requirements were dropped now.”

I also fault the Chief Justice for focusing on only one small piece of evidence, however flawed or subject to qualification. Instead, he should be focusing on fundamental principles of judicial restraint as repeatedly proclaimed by the U.S. Supreme Court itself and as cited by the D.C. Circuit in its opinion in this case.

These precedents emphasize that “Congress’s laws are entitled to a ‘presumption of validity’” and that “when Congress acts pursuant to its enforcement authority under the Reconstruction Amendments [including the Fifteenth Amendment], its judgments about ‘what legislation is needed . . . are entitled to much deference.‘“  Such deference is paid “‘out of respect for [Congress’] . . .  authority to exercise the legislative power,’” and in recognition that Congress “is far better equipped than the judiciary to amass and evaluate the vast amounts of data bearing upon legislative questions.” (Citations omitted.)[3]

Justice Antonin Scalia
Justice Antonin Scalia

Associate Justice Scalia also interrupted Solicitor General Verrilli to make this long statement:

  •  “This Court doesn’t like to get involved . . . in racial questions such as this one. It’s something that can be . . . left to Congress.
  • “The problem here, however, is . . . that the initial enactment of this legislation in a time when the need for it was so much more abundantly clear . . . in the Senate, . . . it was double-digits against it. And that was only a 5-year term. Then, it is reenacted 5 years later, again for a 5-year term. Double-digits against it in the Senate. Then it was reenacted for 7 years. Single digits against it. Then enacted for 25 years, 8 Senate votes against it.
  • “And this last enactment [in 2006], not a single vote in the Senate against it. And the House is pretty much the same.
  •  “Now, I don’t think that’s attributable to the fact that it is so much clearer now that we need this. I think it is . . . very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement. It’s been written about. Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes. I don’t think there is anything to be gained by any Senator to vote against continuation of this act. And I am fairly confident it will be reenacted in perpetuity . . .  unless a court can say it does not comport with the Constitution.
  •  “You have to show, when you are treating different States differently, that there’s a good reason for it. That’s . . . the concern that those of us . . . who have some questions about this statute have. It’s . . .  a concern that this is not the kind of a question you can leave to Congress.
  •  “There are certain districts in the House that are black districts by law just about now. And even the Virginia Senators, they have no interest in voting against this. The State government is not their government, and they are going to lose . . . votes if they do not reenact the Voting Rights Act.
  •  “Even the name of it is wonderful: The Voting Rights Act. Who is going to vote against that in the future?”

These remarks are shocking and totally inconsistent with the Court’s long-established principles of judicial restraint mentioned above and with Justice Scalia’s persistently stated views about judicial interpretation of statutes.

Indeed, Scalia’s remarks provoked the Washington Post’s Editorial Board to proclaim that Scalia was in “contempt of Congress.” The editorial concluded with these words, “Congress, after careful review, came to an overwhelming conclusion that protection of the franchise in America is much improved but not guaranteed, especially in certain areas. We heard in . . . [the Supreme Court] argument no grounds for the court to claim superior wisdom on that question.”

 Conclusion

What is your opinion on how the Voting Rights Act issue should be resolved? Some argue for holding that provision unconstitutional.[4] Others agree with me that the provision should be upheld.[5]

I went to the University of Chicago Law School before Mr. Scalia was on the faculty, and I have never met him. By all reports, he is a brilliant man who is gracious and funny in social settings. But his comments in this and other Court arguments along with some of his opinions lead me to believe that life tenure for Supreme Court Justices and perhaps other federal judges causes at least some of them to believe that they are omniscient.

A possible solution to such arrogance, as I suggested in a comment to a prior post, is to amend  the U.S. Constitution to impose a term limit on U.S. Supreme Court Justices and perhaps other federal judges. All 50 states in the U.S. and all major nations have age or term limits for high-court judges. The International Criminal Court limits its judges to one term of nine years. Such limits are not seen as restrictions on the necessary independence of the judiciary.

The U.S. Constitution does not specifically grant life tenure to the justices or other federal judges. The Constitution merely says, “The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour . . . .” Paul Carrington, a Duke University law professor, has suggested that the “good Behaviour” provision was not intended to provide life-time appointments and that term limits could be imposed by statute.


[1]  This issue was phrased by the Supreme Court itself in granting review of the case. Previous posts have reviewed the Voting Rights Act of 1965; the Voting Rights Act of 2006; the prior Supreme Court case regarding the latter statute (Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. One v. Holder); and the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in the Shelby County case. The transcript of the recent Supreme Court arguments in Shelby County is available online as are the petitioner’s brief, the respondent’s brief for the U.S. Government and the reply brief for the petitioner in the case. Other briefs in the case for three intervenors, 19 amici curiae (friends of the court) supporting the petitioner and 28 amici curiae supporting the U.S. Government can also be found on the web. Excellent commentaries about the case are available on the respected scotusblog.

[2]  E.g., Liptak, Voting Rights Law Draws Skepticism from Justices, N.Y. Times (Feb. 27, 2013); Gerstein, 5 Takeaways from the Voting Rights Act arguments, Politico (Feb. 27, 2013).

[3] Roberts’ hostility to the Voting Rights Act apparently goes back to 1981 when as a young lawyer in the Department of Justice he was working on Reagan Administration efforts to weaken the Voting Rights Act.

[4]  E.g., Blum, The Supreme Court Can Update the Obsolete Voting Rights Act, W.S.J. (Feb. 24, 2013); Room for Debate: Is the Voting Rights Act Still Needed?, N.Y. Times (Feb. 27, 2013) (Shapiro; Pilder); Savage, Decision on Voting Law Could Limit Oversight, N.Y. Times (Feb. 28, 2013); Will, The Voting Rights Act stuck in the past, Wash. Post (Mar. 1, 2013).

[5] E.g., Room for Debate: Is the Voting Rights Act Still Needed?, N.Y. Times (Feb. 27, 2013) (Wydra; Charles & Fuentes-Rohwer; Garza; Smith), supra;  Savage, Decision on Voting Law Could Limit Oversight, N.Y. Times (Feb. 28, 2013), supra.

 

The D.C. Circuit’s Decision Upholding the Validity of the Voting Rights Act of 2006

On February 27, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case challenging the constitutionality of an important provision in the Voting Rights Act of 2006. That provision imposes a requirement in section 5 for certain states to obtain pre-clearance from a special federal court or the U.S. Attorney General for any changes in their election laws.

Before we discuss that argument, we will review the decision that was the subject of that argument: the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder upholding, 2 to 1, the constitutionality of that statute and, therefore, affirming the trial court’s judgment to the same effect.[1]

Judge David S. Tatel
Judge David S. Tatel
Judge Thomas Griffith
Judge Thomas B. Griffith
Judge Stephen F. Williams
Judge Stephen F. Williams

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The opinion for the majority in the Circuit Court was written by Judge David S. Tatel, a President Clinton appointee in 1994 and a University of Chicago Law School classmate and friend of mine. He was joined by Circuit Judge Thomas B. Griffith, an appointee of President George W. Bush in 2005, while the dissenter was Circuit Judge Stephen F. Williams, an appointee in 1994 by President Reagan.

Opinion of the Circuit Court

The D.C. Circuit stressed that it was “bound by fundamental principles of judicial restraint” as repeatedly proclaimed by the U.S. Supreme Court. These precedents emphasize that “Congress’s laws are entitled to a ‘presumption of validity’” and that “when Congress acts pursuant to its enforcement authority under the Reconstruction Amendments [including the Fifteenth Amendment], its judgments about ‘what legislation is needed . . . are entitled to much deference.‘“  Such deference is paid “‘out of respect for [Congress’] . . .  authority to exercise the legislative power,’”and in recognition that Congress ”‘is far better equipped than the judiciary to amass and evaluate the vast amounts of data bearing upon legislative questions.’” (Citations omitted.)

Indeed, the Circuit Court quoted the Supreme Court’s opinion in deciding a prior case about this very statute when that Court emphasized that “judging the constitutionality of an Act of Congress is `the gravest and most delicate duty that [a court] is called on to perform,’'” and that “[t]he Fifteenth Amendment empowers `Congress,’ not the Court, to determine in the first instance what legislation is needed to enforce it.”

These long-standing principles of judicial restraint, I believe, are even more relevant and important, when Congress adds congressional findings of fact to the statute itself, as it did in the Voting Rights Act of 2006.

The D.C. Circuit then addressed the two concerns or questions about the Voting Rights Act of 2006 that the Supreme Court had raised in the Northwest Austin case.

First, are the current burdens imposed by section 5 “justified by current needs”?

Even though there has been significant progress in combatting racial discrimination in voting, the D.C. Circuit stressed that “Congress [had] found that this progress did not tell the whole story.

It documented ‘continued registration and turnout disparities’ in both Virginia and South Carolina.” In addition, “although the number of African Americans holding elected office had increased significantly, they continued to face barriers to election for statewide positions. Congress found that not one African American had yet been elected to statewide office in Mississippi, Louisiana, or South Carolina. In other covered states, “`often it is only after blacks have been first appointed to a vacancy that they are able to win statewide office as incumbents.'”

The D.C. Circuit also noted that “Congress considered other types of evidence that, in its judgment, ‘show[ed] that attempts to discriminate persist and evolve, such that Section 5 is still needed to protect minority voters in the future.’  It heard accounts of specific instances of racial discrimination in voting. It heard analysis and opinions by experts on all sides of the issue.”

Congress considered six distinct categories of evidence, according to the D.C. Circuit: “(1) [U.S.] Attorney General objections issued to block proposed voting changes that would, in the Attorney General’s judgment, have the purpose or effect of discriminating against minorities; (2) ‘more information requests’ issued when the Attorney General believes that the information submitted by a covered jurisdiction is insufficient to allow a preclearance determination; (3) successful lawsuits brought under section 2 of the Act; (4) federal observers dispatched to monitor elections under section 8 of the Act; (5) successful section 5 enforcement actions filed against covered jurisdictions for failing to submit voting changes for preclearance, as well as requests for preclearance denied by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia; and (6) evidence that the mere existence of section 5 deters officials from even proposing discriminatory voting changes.”

Finally, said the D.C. Circuit, “Congress heard evidence that case-by-case section 2 litigation was inadequate to remedy the racial discrimination in voting that persisted in covered jurisdictions.”

The Circuit court then carefully reviewed the legislative record and concluded that it contained “sufficient probative evidence from which Congress could reasonably conclude that racial discrimination in voting in covered jurisdictions is so serious and pervasive that section 2 litigation remains an inadequate remedy.”

Second, does the congressional record support the requisite ‘showing that the statute’s disparate geographic coverage is sufficiently related to the problem that it targets?

In addressing this issue, the Circuit court emphasized that the statute’s disparate geographic coverage depended not only on section 4(b)’s formula, but on the statute as a whole, including its mechanisms for bail-in and bailout. Therefore, for this court the question was whether the statute as a whole, not just the section 4(b) formula, ensures that jurisdictions subject to section 5 are those in which unconstitutional voting discrimination is concentrated.

After reviewing in detail the congressional record on this issue and the total structure of the statute, including bailout and bail-in, the D.C. Circuit concluded that the statute “continues to single out the jurisdictions in which discrimination is concentrated.”

Dissenting Opinion

The dissenting opinion of Judge Williams concluded that the formula in section 4(b) of the statute was unconstitutional because the significant burdens it imposed on “covered jurisdictions” were not “congruent and proportional” to the problems of racially discriminatory voting laws that it targeted.

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[1] Prior posts examined the original Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Voting Rights Act of 2006 and the prior U.S. Supreme Court case regarding the latter statute.

 

District Court Dismisses Lawsuit Challenging Constitutionality of U.S. Senate’s Filibuster Rule

On December 21, 2012, Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the U.S. Senate’s filibuster rule.[1]

The court did not reach or discuss the merits of the constitutional issues even though it said that the filibuster rule was “an important and controversial issue” and that “in recent years, even the mere threat of a filibuster is powerful enough to completely forestall legislative action.” (P. 2.)[2]

Instead, there were two jurisdictional grounds given by the court for the dismissal. First, none of the plaintiffs, the court stated, had the necessary standing to sue. Second, the court found that “this case presents a non-justiciable political question.[3]

No Standing To Sue

In the introduction of the opinion, the Court said it “cannot find that any of the Plaintiffs have standing to sue,” which is a “bedrock requirement of an Article III court’s jurisdiction to resolve only those cases that present live controversies.” (P. 2.) This conclusion was elaborated in the “Analysis” portion of the opinion.

According to the court, there is a doctrine of “procedural standing” when (i) “the government violated [the plaintiff’s] . . . procedural rights designed to protect their threatened, concrete interest” and (ii) the violation resulted in injury to their concrete, particularized interest.” (P. 15.) However, the plaintiffs in this case “are unable to demonstrate that any alleged procedural right to majority consideration of proposed legislation is designed to protect [their] . . . particularized, concrete interests.” (P. 18.)

Quoting a Supreme Court case, Judge Sullivan said for an “irreducible constitutional minimum” showing of Article III standing, a plaintiff must show “(1) he has suffered an ‘injury in fact’ which is (a) concrete and particularized, and (b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical; (2) there is a causal connection between the alleged injury and the conduct complained of that is fairly traceable to the defendant; and (3) it is likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision.” (P. 14.)

The plaintiffs in this case, however, concluded the court, “cannot show that the invalidation of the Cloture Rule [the filibuster rule] has any connection to, or will have any connection to, their ability to benefit from a particular piece of legislation.” (P.27.)

Non-Justiciable Political Question

The opinion’s introduction stated, “the Court is firmly convinced that to intrude into this area would offend the separation of powers on which the Constitution rests. Nowhere does the Constitution contain express requirements regarding the proper length of, or method for, the Senate to debate proposed legislation. Article I reserves to each House the power to determine the rules of its proceedings. And absent a rule’s violation of an express constraint in the Constitution or an individual’s fundamental rights, the internal proceedings of the Legislative Branch are beyond the jurisdiction of this Court.” (P. 3.)

In the detailed analysis of this issue, the opinion appropriately quotes the relevant U.S. Supreme Court precedent of Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 210 (1962). Judge Sullivan said that the “nonjusticiability of a political question is primarily a function of the separation of powers.” The Judge then concluded that three of the six circumstances listed by the Baker decision for such political questions were presented by this case.

First, there was “a textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department.”  Here, Article I, § 5(2) of the Constitution grants each House of the Congress the power to “determine the Rules of its Proceedings.” Moreover, there is no constitutional provision that explicitly limits this power. (Pp. 37-43.)

Second, according to Judge Sullivan, “no judicially manageable standards exist against which to review the Senate’s rules governing debate.” (Pp. 43-44.)

Third, it was impossible for “a court’s undertaking independent resolution [of the case] without expressing lack of respect due coordinate branches of government.”  Indeed, said the court, “reaching the merits of this case would require an invasion into internal Senate processes at the heart of the Senate’s constitutional prerogatives as a House of Congress, and would thus express  a lack of respect for the Senate as a coordinate branch of government.”  In short, “it is for the Senate, and not this Court, to determine the rules governing debate.” (Pp. 45-46.)

Conclusion

Immediately after the decision, Common Cause, the lead plaintiff, said it would appeal the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.


[1] The complaint in this case was the subject of a prior post.

[2] A prior post discussed the merits of the constitutional challenge to the filibuster rule.

[3]  A prior post reviewed the jurisdictional arguments raised by the dismissal motion while the hearing on the motion was mentioned in another post.