Can an Elected State Legislature Sue the State? And Can Congress Approve State Laws That Otherwise Violate the Constitution? More on the Arizona Redistricting Commission Case

Updated:
Posted in: Constitutional Law

In my last column, I explored some aspects of an important case, Arizona Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, pending at the Supreme Court. As I explained, the merits question presented is whether the people of a state may create an independent redistricting commission (IRC)—i.e., one that is not controllable by the elected state legislature—to devise congressional districts, as Arizona voters did in 2000. The elected Arizona legislature (acting as a body) brought suit, arguing the so-called Elections Clause of Article I of the Constitution (Article I, section 4)—which provides that “[t]he [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”—protects elected state legislatures from state laws that take congressional districting out of their hands. In the space below, I continue to explore the questions the case raises, especially in light of the additional briefs that have been filed.

Does the Elected Legislature Have Standing to Sue the State (Voters)? The Two Key Precedents

One issue Court will take up—indeed, an issue the parties initially did not address but on which the Court specifically sought briefing—is whether the elected legislature has “standing” to challenge the Arizona initiative in federal court. Elected state legislatures have been found to have standing in a number of cases in federal court, but the more ordinary situation in which an elected legislature seeks to be in court involves the legislature’s attempt to defend rather than attack state law. When the executive branch of a state does not defend a state law that is challenged by private individuals, the elected legislature may under certain circumstances be permitted to do so instead.

In the Arizona case, by contrast, the elected legislature seeks to invalidate, not preserve, the Arizona law that voters passed in 2000. To do so, the legislature, like any plaintiff in federal court, must demonstrate that it has suffered (or is reasonably certain to suffer) an “injury” that is “cognizable.” The elected legislature’s asserted injury here is that it has been removed from an important job that the federal Constitution (in the Elections Clause) assigns directly to it. Because, under the Arizona initiative, any congressional districting legislation passed by the elected legislature will not be put into effect, the elected legislature’s vote on any such districting will be (improperly, to its way of thinking) nullified.

There is one older Supreme Court case that may support the Arizona legislature’s standing argument. In Coleman v. Miller (1939), a majority of the Kansas state senate brought suit to challenge the actions of the state executive branch in connection with the ratification of a proposed federal constitutional amendment dealing with child labor. The state senate had deadlocked 20-20 on the question of ratification of the amendment, an outcome that ordinarily would be construed as a decision not to ratify. But the lieutenant governor of the state (as presiding officer of the senate), decided to cast a vote—as he would in ordinary legislation—and voted in favor of ratification.

When state officials prepared to communicate that Kansas had ratified, for purposes of determining whether three-quarters of the states had ratified (the threshold required for an amendment to go into effect), the state senators who had voted against ratification, joined by three others to make a majority of the senate, sued, claiming that the lieutenant governor had no business participating in the ratification vote because Article V’s conferral of power to state “legislatures” to ratify federal amendments excludes participation of state executive officials. As a result, the Kansas senators argued, their decision not to ratify (by an equally divided vote) was being improperly overridden.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the plaintiffs had standing, reasoning that the lieutenant governor’s actions, if indeed violative of Article V, completely and improperly nullified the valid votes of the elected state legislators. Because their votes had been unconstitutionally ignored altogether, they had suffered an injury cognizable in federal court.

Coleman was explained, distinguished and perhaps narrowed in 1997 in Raines v. Byrd. In that case, a handful of U.S. Senators and House members brought suit to challenge the constitutionality of the federal Line Item Veto Act (LIVA), a statute passed by Congress and signed into law that purported to give the President, with respect to each future budget bill in which Congress had not indicated an intent otherwise, the power to sign the budget bill into law but then decline to spend any money on certain budget items of his choosing. The plaintiffs in Raines claimed that giving the President such authority diluted the power of Congress, because any votes on subsequent budget bills in Congress might not be given full effect by a President who decided to spend on some, but not on all, the budget items Congress had adopted.

The Court in Raines found plaintiffs lacked standing. It distinguished Coleman in at least three ways: (1) in Coleman, a majority of the Kansas senate voted to sue, whereas Raines involved only a handful of members of Congress, and neither house of Congress authorized the suit; (2) in Coleman, the vote of the twenty Kansas senators was being nullified altogether by the lieutenant governor’s actions, whereas in Raines the dilution or diminution of the “effectiveness” of Congress’s votes in any future budget bill may not have been as extreme; and (3) the Kansas state senate had already voted on the ratification measure in question in Coleman (and the effect of its vote in a particular case was thus at stake), whereas in Raines the alleged harm related to future votes Congress might cast.

How Should Coleman and Raines Play Out in the Arizona Case?

In some ways, the Arizona case is similar to aspects of both Coleman and Raines, a feature which gives the Court some leeway to resolve the standing question any way it wants without having to formally overrule a past case. Like Coleman, the Arizona case involves a suit by a majority of a legislative branch—and not just a few individual members. Also similar to that in Coleman, the claim here is not just that the (redistricting) laws by the elected legislature might be affected or influenced by the Arizona initiative, but that they are foreclosed altogether: all the votes by the elected legislature on a districting bill would be completely ignored. But as in Raines, the alleged harm to voting power is in the future, insofar as the elected Arizona legislature has not actually cast any redistricting votes that have been (or are about to be) ignored or nullified on account of the Arizona initiative.

Here’s another potentially relevant factor. In Coleman, the injury to the Kansas senate was inflicted from outside the senate, by the lieutenant governor. The same is true in Arizona, insofar as the People wrested power from the elected legislature without the legislature’s consent. In Raines, by contrast, Congress itself passed the LIVA that some of its members believe improperly diluted Congress’s own power. The Raines Court did not actually rely on the self-inflicted character of the alleged institutional injury, but that may be a significant background fact.

And here’s yet one more possible consideration. In Raines, the Court suggested that even if the members of Congress lacked standing to challenge the LIVA, someone else outside Congress—the intended beneficiary of a spending item that Congress approved but that the President cancelled under the LIVA—would be able to sue later to challenge the Act. And, in fact, such a challenge did occur (and the LIVA was struck down—wrongly, to my mind) in Clinton v. New York. In the present case, it is possible that a voter or congressional candidate could sue to challenge the Arizona initiative, claiming that the district in which she finds herself on account of the lines drawn by the IRC is less desirable to her than the district in which she would have been located had the elected legislature retained control, but it is far from clear that such a case would actually be filed and survive the standing hurdle. The Supreme Court has elsewhere said that just because it is hard to imagine anyone other than the plaintiff before it who would have a better claim of standing is no reason to relax standing rules, but the presence or absence of better plaintiffs might be an unstated factor in a very flexible standing doctrine. (There are intimations of that in Raines itself.) If the Arizona legislature is correct that the federal Constitution gives it particular power that is being wrongly taken away from it, a sensible system should allow someone to go to court to fix the constitutional violation.

In the end, I think the Court can—and could very well—go either way on the standing question. I note that if the Court limits Raines and allows the elected Arizona legislature to sue, it might be open to the criticism that it manipulates standing rules out of a perceived hostility to direct democracy. Two years ago, in Hollingsworth v. Perry (one of the same-sex marriage cases), the Court used questionable reasoning (even if its result was correct) to make it hard for proponents of initiatives to defend those initiatives in federal court when elected state officials decline to defend. If the Court in the pending Arizona case relaxes the standing bar to make it easier for the elected legislature to attack the Arizona initiative, some will think the Court is just plain anti-initiative.

Back to the Merits and the Key Question of Congressional Approval Power

Of course, one way to avoid that perception would be uphold the Arizona initiative on the merits. As I argued in my last column, I think there is a compelling argument on the merits that Congress, in 2 U.S.C. § 2a(c), approved the use of initiative and other direct democracy devices in the drawing of congressional districts by states, and that such a decision by Congress should be controlling, even assuming that the word “legislature” in the Elections Clause means elected legislature only. The more I have examined the congressional statute in question, the more controlling I think it is, because its text is quite broad and clear in allowing states to use whatever state law devices they want to conduct districting, and because the legislative history suggests that one reason Congress wanted states to be able to use direct democracy in this arena was that elected legislatures were prone to engage in mischievous gerrymandering, the very problem to which the Arizona initiative was directed. So I think the congressional statute here is right on point.

The key question—and one that the briefs don’t fully engage—then becomes whether Congress has the power to authorize states to use initiative devices to draw district lines. The Arizona elected legislature says no, but as I pointed out in my last column, the Supreme Court (in Ohio ex. rel. Davis v. Hildebrant), in upholding Ohio’s use of the referendum in districting), relied explicitly on Congress’s having, in adopting (the predecessor to) 2 U.S.C. § 2a(c), invoked its Article I, section 4 powers, which “expressly gave [Congress] the right to” act in this realm. As I observed, Congress, in exercising its power, 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, before the fact, any districting approach it wants? The recently filed brief for the IRC points out that it is much more convenient for Congress to approve state laws prospectively than it would be to monitor what states are doing and then enact laws itself. But that doesn’t quite answer the question whether Congress has the authority to approve state laws that aren’t on the books at the time Congress adopts the approval. The IRC’s brief, which is superb overall, doesn’t delve deeply into this matter, and the federal government’s amicus brief is the only one I’ve seen that has more engagement with this question.

The best (albeit losing) argument against such congressional power is that prospective approval is an impermissible delegation of congressional authority to states. In the nineteenth century, such an argument might have had traction. Chief Justice Marshall in the well-known case of Gibbons v. Ogden opined that Congress cannot enable states to legislate when the Constitution disabled them from doing so because such prospective empowerment would in effect constitute a delegation of federal legislative authority back to the states. And as Justice Story observed in 1838, federal statutes that approved or incorporated state laws were generally construed as approving or incorporating state laws in effect at the time Congress acted, because there are “very serious doubts, whether [C]ongress does possess a constitutional authority to adopt prospectively state legislation on any given subject; for that, it seems to me, would amount to a delegation of its own legislative power.”

But all this changed in the 1900s. In two seminal cases, the Court signaled that prospective incorporation of state laws by Congress, or prospective congressional approval of state laws that would otherwise violate the Constitution, is allowed. In United States v. Sharpnack (cited by the United States in its amicus brief), the Court allowed Congress to incorporate state criminal laws for use as federal laws in federal enclave (donut hole) territories, and the Court did not construe the incorporation as static, but instead as ongoing, incorporating into the federal law state laws that were passed after Congress acted. In rejecting a delegation attack, the Court said that rather than being a delegation by Congress of its legislative authority to the states, “[the 1948 Act] is deliberate continuing adoption by Congress for federal enclaves of such . . . offenses and punishments as shall have been already put in effect by the respective states for their own government. Congress retains the power to exclude a particular state law from the assimilative effect of the Act.” Thus, the prospective adoption does not constitute a delegation because Congress remains free to withdraw the power being exercised by the states if Congress disapproves. The opportunity to reclaim the delegated authority, under the Court’s reasoning, dissolves the delegation issue.

An even more important case, one I haven’t seen anyone cite in the Arizona case briefs, deals directly with congressional approval of state laws that would otherwise violate the Constitution. (I tend to think that the congressional statute authorizing direct democracy in drawing district lines, 2 U.S.C. § 2a(c), is more of an authorization of state law than it is an incorporation of state law into federal law, since I don’t think the ins and outs of the Arizona initiative are themselves federal law.) In Prudential Ins. Co. v. Benjamin, decided in 1946, the Court effectively held when the Constitution deprives states but not Congress of authority to do certain things, it does not restrict the “coordinated exercise” of federal and state authority. Put another way, if Congress can do something alone, Congress can consent (oven prospectively) to having the states do it instead. As Professor Cohen has correctly observed, the Court’s theory sweeps broadly: “Congress may remove all constitutional limits on States when those limits are wholly inapplicable to Congress—that is, when they stem solely from divisions of power within the federal system.”

As I have explained more fully in academic writings, I think the twentieth century attitude reflected in Sharpnack and Prudential may have something to do with the fact that, beginning in the early 1900s, U.S. Senators were no longer elected by state legislatures, such that delegations by Congress to state governments were less scary, insofar as states (through their clout over Senators) wouldn’t be able to block efforts by Congress to reclaim federal power if states were abusing it. As Sharpnack pointed out, as long as Congress can pull back any power it has given to states, the delegation problem is minimized.

Perhaps delegation to state peoples to engage in direct democracy, as opposed to delegations to elected state legislatures, never raised reclamation problems even before the 1900s, so that even Chief Justice Marshall and Justice Story, in their times, would see no problem with a federal law that allowed states, freely and prospectively, to make use of direct democracy in congressional district drawing. But in any event, in light of Sharpnack and especially Prudential, the congressional statute at issue in the Arizona case, 2 U.S.C. § 2a(c), is a permissible exercise of congressional power, and thus should be an easy basis on which the Court could resolve the case, if it chooses to reach the merits at all.

  • Congress has acted several times to change the way U.S. House members are elected. In the early years of the republic, it was not uncommon for states to elect their House delegations at-large. An 1842 statute mandated single-member districts for U.S. House elections. The single-member requirement was dropped in 1929 and then reimposed in 1967. So, there is certainly precedent that state legislatures do not have primacy when it comes to the “…Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives,” as stated in Article I, section 4 of the Constitution.