Why the Supreme Court Should Reject the Arizona Legislature’s Challenge to the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission

Posted in: Constitutional Law

One of the important Supreme Court cases currently being briefed (with oral argument set for March), Arizona Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, involves the question whether the U.S. Constitution and congressional statutes permit the people of a state to implement an initiative creating an independent redistricting commission (IRC)—i.e., one that is not controllable by the elected state legislature—to devise congressional districts. Arizona voters passed just such an initiative in 2000, and the elected Arizona legislature (acting as a body) has now brought the case to the Supreme Court, arguing primarily that the so-called Elections Clause of Article I of the Constitution (Article I, section 4) prevents a state from divesting district-drawing power from the elected state legislature. The Arizona legislature (represented by former Solicitor General Paul Clement) has filed its brief in the Court, and the IRC (also represented by a former Solicitor General, Seth Waxman) will file its written argument very soon. In the space below, I analyze the merits portion of Mr. Clement’s brief on behalf of the Arizona legislature, and point out why I think it fails to demonstrate that the IRC’s creation and powers violate federal law. (Another part of Mr. Clement’s brief, addressing whether the Arizona legislature has “standing” in federal court to assert a challenge to the IRC at all, raises interesting questions of its own, but those will have to await another day.)

What the Constitution and Federal Statutes Say, and What Mr. Clement’s Brief Argues

The Elections Clause of the Constitution reads in relevant part: “The [districts for] 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 . . . .”

And an important federal statute says that “u]ntil a State is redistricted in the manner provided by the law thereof after any apportionment, the Representatives to which such State is entitled under such apportionment shall be elected in [a particular way].” 2 U.S.C. § 2a(c) (emphasis added).

Mr. Clement’s argument against the IRC is pretty straightforward. He contends that the term “legislature” in Article I refers, as a matter of constitutional text, history, and policy, specifically to the elected body of regular legislators of the state, and if another body—the IRC—is empowered to do the districting instead, the elected legislature has been improperly divested of its constitutionally conferred prerogative. As the brief observes, quoting from a case (Hawke v. Smith), “[t]he term ‘the legislature’ . . . ‘was not a term of uncertain meaning when incorporated into the Constitution,’ and ‘what it meant when adopted it still means,’ namely, ‘the representative body which made the laws of the people.’” The brief adds that this precise wording by the framers was motivated by their “admiration for representative democracy and skepticism for other forms of government, including direct democracy.” The brief then goes on to explain why “the IRC is not ‘a legislature’ at all [and is certainly] not ‘the Legislature’ in Arizona.”

Mr. Clement does have to deal with two Supreme Court cases that seem to support the IRC. In Ohio ex. rel. Davis v. Hildebrant, in 1916, the Court upheld Ohio’s use of the referendum (a popular vote veto by the people directly) to oversee the congressional districting done by the elected state legislature. The Court specifically rejected a challenge to the referendum based on Article I, section 4 of the Constitution, finding that “to include the referendum into the scope of the legislative process was [not] to introduce a virus which destroys that power,” and also that Congress expressly chose language to include in a federal statute (the one quoted above) in order to make clear its desire that where under state law “the referendum was treated as part of the legislative power, the power as thus constituted should be held and treated to be the state legislative power for the purpose of” the Elections Clause (emphasis added).

And in Smiley v. Holm, in 1932, the Court upheld Minnesota law’s inclusion of the governor in the districting process through the power of the veto, holding that there is nothing in the federal Constitution that suggests “an attempt to endow the Legislature of the state with the power to enact laws in any manner other than that in which the Constitution of the state has provided that all laws shall be enacted.” As a result, a redistricting passed by the elected legislature but vetoed by the governor was not allowed to go into effect.

Mr. Clement argues that these two cases “do not aid the IRC” because “both decisions clearly contemplate a continuing role—indeed, a continuing preeminent role—for the state legislature in prescribing congressional districts,” insofar as the referendum power and the gubernatorial veto at issue in those cases did not obviate the need for the elected legislature to itself agree on any districting plan that would go into effect. Because Arizona’s IRC scheme totally replaces—rather than supplements—the power of the elected legislature, these cases, argues Mr. Clement, are readily distinguishable.

As to the federal statute that the IRC invokes to support it—2 U.S.C. § 2a(c)—Mr. Clement argues that a recent ruling by the Supreme Court (Branch v. Smith) that discusses that provision does not mention that it embodies a congressional blessing of all districting done pursuant to state law. Moreover, Mr. Clement argues, if Congress “ever passed a statute purporting” to “authorize states to oust from the congressional redistricting process the very state legislatures to which the Constitution delegates primary power,” then such a law would “be plainly unconstitutional.”

Why the Constitutional Reading Offered by the Arizona Elected Legislature Is Unpersuasive

Mr. Clement’s argument on behalf of the Arizona elected legislature is flawed in several respects. Sometimes the argument frames questions improperly, and sometimes the argument’s conclusions are not logically supported. At a relatively high level of abstraction, the brief misdescribes the relevant inquiry: the question is not whether the IRC can be considered a “legislature” within the meaning of the federal Constitution; the question is whether the Arizona electorate—which passed the measure creating, empowering and directing the IRC—can be considered the state’s “legislature” for Article I, section 4 purposes. To see this, ask yourself whether the elected Arizona legislature could—if it wanted to—create and appoint a body like the IRC, and charge it with the task of actually drawing the district lines, without the need for formal ratification or approval of the final boundaries by the elected legislature. That is precisely what five other states do, and no one—even the Arizona elected legislature—seems to quarrel with that. In other words, no one argues that an elected legislature is violating Article I, section 4 by making use of a commission to help draw the lines. (The same is true for Congress; no one believes that the clause empowering “Congress” to “regulate commerce among the several states” is violated when Congress creates, empowers, and directs federal agencies to craft the specific commercial regulations in the name of the federal government.)

So if the people of Arizona can be considered a legislature for Article I, section 4 purposes, then it matters not whether the IRC is a legislature. The IRC is the tool of the popular legislature, just as commissions are the tools of the elected legislatures in states like Montana, Idaho, New Jersey, Washington, and Hawaii.

And when we turn to the question whether the people of a state can properly be considered the legislature of the state for these purposes, we see that the brief’s treatment of the Hildebrant and Smiley cases is quite incomplete at the very least. The brief’s claim that, as far as the facts go, the devices at issue in those cases did not completely displace the role of the elected legislature is true. But it is also true that the affirmative legal argument the brief makes—that the text, history and policy behind Article I, section 4 require that the word “legislature” be understood to mean the elected legislature and only the elected legislature—simply cannot be squared with the outcome, let alone the reasoning, of those cases. To put the point is quasi-mathematical terms, if “legislature” equals elected legislature and no more and no less, then “legislature” cannot equal “legislature plus people” or “legislature plus governor.”

Indeed, what strikes me most in reading the brief is that its drafters make bold assertions without seeming to realize that these assertions conflict directly with Hildebrant and Smiley, the cases Mr. Clement argues pose no problems for him. For example, the brief asserts—in a section heading, no less—that “The Text of the Elections Clause Unambiguously Vests State Authority . . . in the State’s Representative Lawmaking Body Alone” (emphasis added). The inclusion of the word “alone” is puzzling. If it is true that Article I, section 4 vests power in the elected legislature “alone,” the how could a veto by the people (in the form of a referendum) be countenanced? (Similarly puzzling is the brief’s insistence that the word “prescribe” in Article I, section 4 means “establish authoritatively” or “dictate.” If the redistricting work product of the elected legislature can be made subject to a requirement of popular approval, as Hildebrant says it can, in what sense is the elected legislature “authoritatively establishing” or “dictating” anything?)

In a related vein, the brief observes that “the framers knew the differences between ‘state legislatures’ and the ‘executive . . . branch[]’” and that “[t]hose contemporary understandings and usages are critical.” Why would you make this (tangential) textual argument concerning the difference between “legislature” and “executive” when Smiley—a case whose relevance you are trying to minimize—expressly permits executive involvement in Article I, section 4 district drawing?

It is true that Mr. Clement’s brief is able to quote, as noted earlier, language from one Court case, Hawke v. Smith (decided in 1920), to the effect that the meaning of the term “legislature” is the same now as it was in 1787—the elected representatives. What the brief does not mention, however, is that this language in Hawke did not involve Article I’s Election Clause, but the word “legislature” as it appears in Article V’s amendment process. The Hawke Court rejected the applicability of the referendum device in Article V. But Hildebrant explicitly permits the use of the referendum in congressional district drawing, which strongly suggests that the Court has a different conception of the what “legislature” means in Article I, section 4—a conception that focuses not on a specific elected body but on the lawmaking power of the state more generally and the democratically accountable legislative process that is being employed.

That the Court interprets Article I, section 4’s reference to “legislature” in terms of a democratic legislative process, rather than in terms of a particular body, was made explicit by the Court in Smiley (the case involving a gubernatorial veto of an elected legislature’s redistricting bill.) Responding directly to and rejecting the Hawke Court’s “a legislature is a particular elected body” reasoning employed in Article V, the Smiley Court said: “The question [in the present case] is not with respect to the ‘body’ . . . but as to the function to be performed. The use in the Federal Constitution of the same term in different [parts] does not always imply the performance of the same function.” So while Mr. Clement is able to quote language from Hawke, the brief doesn’t explain that Hawke’s interpretive approach has been overtly rejected by the Court in the Elections Clause context.

Just as Mr. Clement’s textual arguments are in tension with the results and reasoning of case law, so too are his historical claims. If the framers of Article I, section 4 were so “skeptical” of direct democracy, and if such pure democracy “results in ‘spectacles of turbulence and contention,’” as the brief argues, then how to explain the Court’s decision in Hildebrant to permit a state to subject an elected legislature’s districting plan to a popular referendum?

Overall, it almost seems as if one person wrote the first part of the brief—laying out an aggressive textual and historical argument—and then another person was tasked with trying to deflect potentially damaging cases, and no one realized that the proffered distinctions of cases had to mesh with the affirmative reading of Article I, section 4 offered in the main argument.

Why the Brief’s Treatment of the Role of Congress in This Dispute Is Even Weaker

Putting aside what the word “legislature” means in Article I, section 4, the least persuasive part of the brief might well be its treatment of the crucial congressional statute. As noted above, one reason the Hildebrant Court gave for upholding the use of the referendum in district drawing was its view that Congress, when it was modifying a key federal statute regarding redistricting, replaced a reference to the “legislature” of a state with the phrase “in the manner provided by the law” of a state, specifically in order to convey its approval of any state redistricting that made use of the referendum, so long as the referendum was consistent with state law. Mr. Clement’s brief does not deny that the Hildebrant Court read the statutory language this way (the brief never even refers specifically to the passage in Hildebrant.) Instead, the brief simply says that a more recent case, Branch v. Smith, discussing the same statutory provision, did not reiterate what Hildebrant said, and that some Justices in Branch believed that the statutory provision at issue had been implicitly repealed by other statutes.

But the brief does not mention that five Justices in Branch explicitly expressed their view that the provision at issue had not been implicitly repealed. Nor does the brief mention that while Branch does not reiterate the reading Hildebrant gave, neither does it pull back from Hildebrant’s reading in any way. Indeed, the Branch Court had no occasion to even discuss the Hildebrant interpretation at all because although the statute at issue in Branch was the same one involved in Hildebrant (or, more specifically, a later rendition of the same law), the legal question presented in Branch had nothing to do with whether Congress has approved of state redistricting that is accomplished, consistent with state law, through the use of direct democracy. Hildebrant’s interpretation thus is not called into question by Branch, and statutory stare decisis is, of course, supposed to be very strong.

Probably because its drafters sense vulnerability here, the brief does say Congress cannot constitutionally authorize state laws that cut elected state legislatures out of the district-drawing loop. But in making this assertion the brief is on very weak ground. Congress is explicitly empowered to override any state districting and do the districting itself. That is precisely why the Hildebrant Court found congressional endorsement of Ohio’s scheme so relevant—because Article I, section 4 “expressly gave [Congress] the right to” decide. In exercising its power, Congress might have passed a law creating the very identical Arizona IRC to do the districting within the state, and that would be completely permissible. If Congress could have enacted the IRC law itself (or incorporated it by reference into binding federal law shortly after the Arizona voters approved it), then why can’t it simply approve any districting approach that satisfies whichever requirements, such as compliance with state law procedures, that Congress thinks are important? That is the key question Mr. Clement brief’s never begins to address. And while one could make noises that even though Congress can do something itself in this realm it cannot prospectively authorize a state to do it instead, any such arguments are unlikely to be convincing, especially in light of the use to which Hildebrant put the statute.

Perhaps it is possible to read the federal statute as approving the use of the referendum, as in Hildebrant, but not the use of the initiative, as in the present case. But the text of the statutory phrase relied on by Hildebrant—“in the manner provided by the law” of a state—would not seem to permit such a distinction. Neither would the statute’s legislative history (also relied on by the Hildebrant Court), which mentioned a desire to permit states to use both the initiative and the referendum in districting processes.

In the end, this congressional blessing, coupled with Congress’s broad override powers in the Elections Clause, might be the easiest, and narrowest, ground on which to decide the case and reject the Arizona legislature’s attack. There would then be no need to decide whether, in the absence of the federal statute, a state could cut an elected legislature out of the districting process or whether such an effort would be foreclosed by a strict reading of the word “legislature” in Article I, section 4.