Tag Archives: Supreme Court

Another Look At Gerrymandering

This week, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in an important gerrymandering case on appeal from Wisconsin. Regular readers are undoubtedly tired of my posts about gerrymandering, but this seems an apt time to share remarks I recently made to the Washington Township Democratic Club, summarizing the issues.

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I’ve always believed that gerrymandering is a frontal assault on democracy, but a recent electoral analysis from the Cook Report really brought home the extent of that assault: one out of twenty Americans currently lives in a competitive Congressional District.

Think about that for a minute.

How did we get to a place where—as Common Cause puts it—legislators are choosing their voters rather than the other way around? And what can we do about it?

Let me address three aspects of our current situation: first, a brief recap of the effects of partisan redistricting;  second, an even briefer reference to the academic literature on the subject; and finally, the possibility that an upcoming Supreme Court case will provide a legal remedy.

First, a recap:

As we all know, whichever party holds a majority in the statehouse in the year following the census wins the privilege of drawing maps that will control the political agenda for the state for the ensuing ten years.

1) the goal is to draw as many “safe” seats as possible–more for the party in charge, of course, but also for the minority party, because in order to retain control, the winners need to cram as many of the losers into as few districts as possible, and those districts are also safe. This process is sometimes called “cracking” and “packing.” We have engaged in this effort since the time of Vice-President Gerry, for whom the process is named –and he signed the Declaration of Independence!– but computers have made the process far, far more efficient.

2) Neighborhoods, cities, towns, townships–even precincts–are evaluated solely on the basis of voting history, and then broken up to meet the political needs of mapmakers. Numbers are what drive the results–not compactness of districts, not communities of interest, and certainly not democratic competitiveness. (I will point out that the numbers used for these calculations are previous votes—if we could get a significant number of people who haven’t previously voted to the polls, there would be far fewer safe seats.)

Some of the results of this partisan process are obvious:

1) The interests of cities, neighborhoods, etc., are less likely to be represented.

2) Safe districts create sloppy legislators: if you are guaranteed victory every election, it is hard to be motivated and interested, easy to become lazy and arrogant.

3) Party preoccupation with gerrymandering consumes an enormous amount of money and energy that could arguably be better directed.

4) Safe seats allow politicians to scuttle popular measures without fear of retribution: Milo Smith, for example, occupies a safe seat in Bartholomew County, and felt perfectly free to single-handedly kill redistricting reform last year.

5) Lack of competitiveness also makes it very difficult to trace campaign donations, since unopposed candidates send their unneeded money to those running in competitive districts. So when the folks with “Family Friendly Libraries” send a check to Rep. Censor, who is unopposed, he then sends it to Sen. MeToo, who is in a hot race; but Sen. MeToo’s campaign report shows only a contribution from Rep. Censor.

These are just a few of the more obvious effects of gerrymandering, and they are all worrisome. But there are two other consequences that deserve special attention, because they undermine the very foundations of democracy.

First, the lack of competitiveness breeds voter apathy and reduced political participation. Why get involved when the result is foreordained? Why donate to a sure loser? For that matter, unless you are trying to buy political influence for some reason, why donate to a sure winner? Why volunteer or vote?

It isn’t only voters who lack incentives for participation: it is very difficult to recruit credible candidates to run on the ticket of the “sure loser” party. As a result, in many of these races, even when there are competing candidates on the general election ballot, the reality is usually a “choice” between a heavily favored incumbent and a marginal candidate who offers no new ideas, no energy, and no genuine challenge. And in increasing numbers of statehouse districts, the incumbent or his chosen successor is unopposed even by a token candidate. Of the 100 seats in the Indiana House last November, all of which were on the ballot, 32 candidates ran unopposed.

We hear a lot about voter apathy, as if it were a moral deficiency of the voters. Allow me to suggest that it may be a highly rational response to noncompetitive politics. Watch those same “apathetic” folks at a local zoning hearing when a liquor store wants to go in down the street! Rational people save their efforts for places where those efforts count, and thanks to the increasing lack of competitiveness, those places often do not include the voting booth.

Second, and even more pernicious, gerrymandering has contributed to the polarization of American politics, and our current gridlock. When a district is safe for one party, the only way to oppose an incumbent is in the primary–and that almost always means that the challenge will come from the “flank” or extreme. When the primary is effectively the general election, the battle takes place among the party faithful, who also tend to be the most ideological of voters. So Republican incumbents will be challenged by the Right and Democratic incumbents will be attacked from the Left. Even where those challenges fail, they leave a powerful incentive for the incumbent to toe the line– to placate the most rigid elements of the party. Instead of the system working as intended, with both parties nominating folks they think will be most likely to attract support from a broad constituency, we get nominees who have been chosen by the most extreme voters on each side of the philosophical divide. Then we wonder why they can’t compromise and get the people’s business accomplished!

Until and unless we eliminate gerrymandering, whoever we send to Washington will by stymied by the intransigence and gridlock that is an inevitable consequence of the current system. And–perhaps even worse– reduced voter participation has significant implications for the legitimacy of government action. Is a Representative truly representative when he/she is elected by 10% or 20% of the voters in the district?

Eliminating gerrymandering won’t magically make all districts competitive. (Big Sort) But when I was doing research for an academic article on redistricting, I was stunned by the number of scholars who simply dismissed the role of redistricting in the creation of safe districts—they attributed the well-documented incumbency advantages to things like better fundraising and weak opponents. I hate to be snarky, but that’s what you get from people whose understanding of politics is entirely abstract, and divorced from real-world experience. Of course incumbents raise more money and have weak opponents—it’s because they have safe seats. File under “duh.” (Reading those articles reminded me of Lee Hamilton’s remark—I think it was in the wake of Citizens United –to the effect that the Supreme Court could do with fewer Harvard Law graduates and more Justices who had once been county sheriffs….)

Interestingly, I found one of the best and most complete reviews of recent scholarly literature on the effects of partisan redistricting in an amicus brief filed by Thomas Mann and Norman Orenstein in the case of Harris v. Arizona Redistricting Commission. Mann is a Democrat and Orenstein is—or at least was—a Republican; they are both political scientists and they’ve written extensively about redistricting. In the brief, they cited to studies that tied redistricting to the advantages of incumbency, and they also made an interesting point that I’d not previously considered: the reliance by House candidates upon maps drawn by state-level politicians operates to reinforce what they described as “partisan rigidity.” (If you want to see how that works, I recommend Ratfucked, a recent and very informative book that documents the Republicans’ nationwide gerrymander in 2010.)

Mann and Orenstein also cited to a really interesting article in which researchers investigated whether representatives elected from districts drawn by independent commissions are less partisan. This matters, because redistricting reform is unlikely to change state-level party dominance. We all know that even if Indiana reforms its redistricting practices, Republicans will continue to control the state, albeit probably not with today’s Super-Majority. This will still be a Red State. Would the Republicans elected from non-gerrymandered districts suddenly become less partisan? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Here’s the conclusion of the scholars who researched that question.

“Contrary to the initial expectations of the authors, the evidence reviewed here suggests that politically independent redistricting seems to reduce partisanship in the voting behavior of congressional delegations from affected states in statistically significant ways.”

Changing redistricting practices through the political system is a pretty daunting task, as we’ve seen here in Indiana. So let me just conclude by addressing the prospects for a court-imposed solution.

As most of you know, the Court has refused to allow racially discriminatory redistricting. But it has declined to intervene in the handful of cases it has heard alleging partisan redistricting, for a couple of reasons.

In fact, the Court only narrowly held that claims of partisan gerrymandering are justiciable under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause—four Justices would have ruled that gerrymandering is a “political question” and the Court shouldn’t even hear such challenges. Even the five Justices who agreed that the Court could properly intervene concluded that a discrepancy between the percentage of votes garnered by a political party and the number of seats that party ultimately won was insufficient to demonstrate both partisan purpose and effect.

The problem the Court identified was lack of a reliable standard or formula for determining when a district had been intentionally gerrymandered. The Court has held that plaintiffs must prove both discriminatory intent and discriminatory effect, and that “unconstitutional discrimination occurs only when an electoral system is arranged in a manner that will consistently degrade a voter’s or a group of voters’ influence on the political process as a whole.”  Proving that requires a test that the Court can apply, and as of the last challenge heard by the Court, no such test had been developed.

Until now.

In “Partisan Gerrymandering and the Efficiency Gap,” two political science professors from the University of Chicago proposed a standard they call the “efficiency gap,” using the concept of “wasted votes.”  The efficiency gap is the difference between the parties’ respective wasted votes in an election, divided by the total number of votes cast. “Wasted” votes are ballots that don’t contribute to victory for candidates; they may be lost votes cast for candidates who are defeated, or surplus votes cast for winning candidates in excess of what they needed to win. When a party gerrymanders a state, it tries to maximize the wasted votes for the opposing party while minimizing its own, and that produces an efficiency gap. In a state with perfect partisan symmetry and no gerrymandering, both parties would have the same number of wasted votes. As a matter of simple arithmetic, the efficiency gap is equal to a party’s undeserved seat share.

in Gill v.Whitford, Democrats are relying on the efficiency gap test to demonstrate gerrymandering in Wisconsin. The state has appealed from a judgment by a three-judge federal panel that applied the test, ruled that the maps were an unconstitutional gerrymander, and ordered the Wisconsin Legislature to redraw them.

If the Supreme Court agrees with that three-judge panel, we may finally have a tool to force State Legislatures to reform their redistricting practices. We shouldn’t kid ourselves that it will be easy; elected officials aren’t going to cheerfully relinquish the tools that have given them power. It will take civic pressure, political will and probably additional litigation.

But eventually, we might live in a country where more than one in twenty Americans has an actual legislative choice at the ballot box.

Thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gorsuch Nomination

As I have previously written, the most damning argument against Judge Gorsuch’s confirmation has nothing to do with his bona fides, which are impressive. It is the inescapable fact that his elevation to the Supreme Court will be illegitimate–the result of a very dangerous and cynical misuse of political power.

The Republicans’ refusal to afford Merrick Garland a hearing has been widely criticised as blatantly partisan, so I nearly fell off the treadmill yesterday morning during my workout, as I watched an interview with Lindsey Graham. Senator Graham praised Judge Gorsuch and rattled off his qualifications; then he opined–with no hint of irony–that failure to confirm him would be “political” and thus unprincipled.

Unfortunately, those conducting the interview failed to ask the obvious follow-up question: if failure to approve Gorsuch would be “playing politics,” what the hell was failure to even consider Garland?

The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

But what about Judge Gorsuch himself? His willingness–even eagerness–to fill a seat that will inevitably be seen as stolen is understandable; it’s the Supreme Court, after all. He is clearly highly intelligent; his academic background and professional experience are exemplary. His opinions–whether we agree with them or not–are clearly within the broad mainstream of the judiciary.

The two areas that trouble me are his professed version of originalism and his ambiguous  approach to substantive due process.

True “originalism” comes in a number of respectable versions, but over the past couple of decades, the term has become code for “conservative in the mold of Scalia.”  As Judge Posner (himself a conservative jurist) has persuasively noted, Antonin Scalia’s self-described originalism was incoherent and conveniently invoked. I don’t know any legal scholars who do not begin their analyses by looking to the Constitutional text and its historical meaning–and I don’t know any credible legal authority who would agree with a nice man I once debated, who insisted that “free speech” applied only to oral communications, not newspapers, books or other non-spoken transmittals of ideas. (“It says speech.”)

I often introduce the subject of original intent to my classes by asking “So, what did James Madison think about porn on the internet?” Usually, they laugh–and after we acknowledge that James Madison could never have envisioned the Internet, we consider how the Founders’ clear intent to protect the expression and exchange of ideas from government censorship should be applied to “facts on the ground” that those Founders could never have foreseen. In these situations, people of good will–all of whom believe they are honoring the principles the Founders intended to protect–can come to different conclusions about what fidelity to original intent requires.

I’d be very interested to know how Judge Gorsuch defines his originalism.

The Judge’s approach to substantive due process (sometimes called the Constitutional right to privacy) is unclear. Unlike our conversational use of the term, the constitutional right to privacy is shorthand for the individual’s right to self-determination, the doctrine that identifies fundamental individual rights that government cannot infringe without a compelling reason.

As the Court put it in one case, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

Substantive due process requires government to respect the right of individuals to hold their own political and religious beliefs, define their own life’s meaning, choose their own life partners and control their own procreation. It defines certain areas of citizens’ lives as “off limits” to government. Our current privacy jurisprudence began when the Court struck down a Connecticut law prohibiting married couples from using contraception; the Court held that such intimate personal decisions were none of the government’s business.

Scalia was a ferocious critic of substantive due process; he had a crabbed, authoritarian view of individual liberty. (In Lawrence v. Texas, his acerbic dissent made clear his belief that government has the authority to outlaw fornication and masturbation.)

Would Judge Gorsuch agree? Will he follow Scalia, or respect existing legal precedents that protect our “intimate” behaviors and relationships from legislative assault?

Assuming Judge Gorsuch is confirmed to the “stolen seat” on the Court, his approach to originalism and substantive due process will be critically important. It would be nice to know his positions on those fundamental issues before the Senate votes.

 

Dirty Harry, Mitch McConnell and the Rule of Law

A former student recently asked for my opinion on Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s nominee for the current Supreme Court vacancy. As I told him, my concerns about Gorsuch pale in comparison to my deep disquiet over the Senate’s refusal to “advise and consent” with respect to President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland.

Let me be very clear: Had Mitch McConnell and the GOP conducted hearings on Garland’s nomination, and then voted against confirmation, I would have disagreed with the result. But I wouldn’t have been appalled. I wouldn’t have seen a rejection that emerged from the proper process as a dangerous affront to democratic norms and the rule of law.

McConnell’s refusal to follow the standard procedure contemplated by the Constitution and traditionally adhered to by the Senate was a worrisome and unprecedented assault on governmental legitimacy.

If there is one clear distinction between western constitutional systems and the various dictatorships and theocracies around the globe, it is the formers’ emphasis on the importance of fair procedures that everyone, even government, must follow. As I’ve previously argued, the Bill of Rights might justifiably be characterized as a restatement of your mother’s admonition that how you do something can often be more important than what you choose to do.

“The ends do not justify the means” is a fundamental principle of American law.

Adherence to objective and uniform procedures–the institutional means through which governments achieve their ends—is at the core of the rule of law. For ideologues and theocrats, however, achieving the “right” outcome, managing to win one’s preferred outcomes even if that requires ignoring or circumventing accepted rules, is what is important. It’s the age-old conflict between the rule of law and the “rule of men” (aka the exercise of raw power).

I’ve always hated those “Dirty Harry” type movies, where the purported “good guy” foils the villain by breaking the rules. Those movies elevate the ends over the means–just as Mitch McConnell did when he exercised arbitrary power, in defiance of accepted democratic norms, simply because he could.

In an article about Gorsuch, Dahlia Lithwick recently argued that

the nomination is wholly illegitimate. Gorsuch may or may not be a good judge, but there is no principled reason for him to have a hearing when Merrick Garland did not. This is a problem of power, not legal qualifications.

The Democrats have an unpleasant choice to make. They can refuse to participate in Gorsuch’s hearings, implicitly normalizing this sort of thuggish behavior and doing further damage to American law and institutions, or they can participate in the hearings and demonstrate fidelity to the Constitutional process, recognizing that they are thereby tacitly condoning McConnell’s unconscionable breach and arguably encouraging more and further departures from government legitimacy and the rule of law.

Thanks to Mitch McConnell and his desire to flex his legislative muscle, to display to his base and his political opponents alike his power to “steal” a Supreme Court seat, either option will further erode American democracy and diminish respect for American political institutions.

Legitimacy Cannot Be Stolen

Power can be stolen. Legitimacy must be earned.

I was reminded of the difference by a recent Huffington Post article by Geoffrey Stone. Stone is an eminent Constitutional scholar who teaches at the University of Chicago; I’ve used his texts on constitutional history and analysis both as a law student and more recently as a professor. As he writes,

Throughout my career, I have honored the fundamental role the Supreme Court plays in our system of government. There have, of course, been many Supreme Court decisions with which I’ve disagreed over the years, but I have always respected the essential legitimacy and integrity of the Supreme Court as an indispensable institution in our American democracy.

But now, for the first time in my career, I find myself hesitating. This is not a reflection on the judgment or integrity of any of the current or former justices. It is, rather, a reflection on what the Senate Republicans have done to the fundamental legitimacy of the Supreme Court in the future. By refusing to confirm President Barack Obama’s appointment of Chief Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, Senators Mitch McConnell, Charles Grassley, and their Republican cronies betrayed our constitutional traditions and undermined a central principle of American democracy. Although they maintained that their unconscionable behavior was “justified” by the fact that the vacancy arose during President Obama’s final year in office, this was a blatantly dishonest assertion. In fact, a long line of presidents have made appointments to the Supreme Court in the final year of their terms, including such historic figures as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan.

Those of us in the legal community–Republican and Democrat alike–have pointed to this unprecedented obstruction as additional evidence that American government is broken–that it has become deeply dysfunctional.  As Stone notes, this profoundly un-American behavior was based upon “rank partisanship”–the hope that a Republican President would appoint a judge more to their ideological liking.

In the great tradition of “be careful what you wish for,” however, the actions of these Senators will have had a very unfortunate effect: they will permanently  undermine the legitimacy of anyone who ultimately joins the Court.

Their unconscionable behavior will rightly cast severe doubt on the legitimacy of whatever individual President Trump appoints in place of Chief Judge Garland. Every vote that justice casts in the future will be called into question, because that justice will be sitting on the Supreme Court bench because of nothing less than a constitutional coup d’etat. Through no fault of his or her own, that justice will be seen as an interloper who should never have been appointed to the Court.

Stone reminds readers that the last effort to do a political “end run” around a Court was FDR’s “court packing” scheme, a response to the then-Court’s invalidation of progressive legislation intended to ease the Depression. Even though the Democratic base deeply disapproved of the Court’s rulings, however, Democratic Senators rejected Roosevelt’s plan.

Indeed, even Roosevelt’s Vice-President, John Nance Garner, publicly scorned the plan as unprincipled. In short, those Democrats – those principled public servants – understood that even a crisis like the Depression could not justify so craven a distortion of the traditional procedures and practices of government in order to achieve politically desired ends.

It’s hard to find fault with Stone’s concluding paragraph:

As a sign of the moral corruption that now plagues our nation, though, in this instance Senate Republicans, caring more about outcomes than principles, ruthlessly distorted the advice and consent process in order to attain partisan political ends. That this happened is nothing short of disgraceful. Let us not forget their shameful abuse of authority. And let us not forget that President Trump’s first appointment to the Supreme Court will in fact be an illegitimate interloper who has absolutely no business being the decisive vote in critical Supreme Court decisions in the years and decades to come. By this act, Senate Republicans have undermined the credibility and the legitimacy of an essential branch of our national government. Shame on them.

“Repealing” Roe v. Wade

On 60 Minutes, Donald Trump evidently claimed that “repealing” Roe v. Wade would be a priority.

Among the many, many things our next President does not understand is how government actually works. He may be surprised to discover that Congress–even one dominated by GOP culture warriors–cannot “repeal” a Constitutional right.

That is not to say that Roe is safe, only that it will take several years and some fairly creative judicial legerdemain to completely reverse current case law.

Here is how it will play out.

Trump will have an immediate appointment to the Supreme Court, and may well have one or two others during a four-year term. He has pledged to appoint a social conservative, and that’s a pledge he’s likely to keep. Once a case implicating reproductive choice works its way up to the Supreme Court, that newly conservative Court will take the opportunity to further limit what previous Courts have confirmed: it is a woman’s constitutional right to control her own body. Perhaps the newly constituted Court will reverse Roe outright, perhaps not–but the effect will be the same.

Reversing Roe entirely would leave the legality of abortion up to the individual states. We would go back to the time–a time I vividly remember– when women who could afford to do so traveled to states where abortion was legal, and a significant number of the women who couldn’t afford to do that died in back-alley, illegal operations.

As my friends at Planned Parenthood like to point out, women didn’t begin getting abortions after Roe v. Wade. They just stopped dying from them. 

The only thing prochoice Americans can do to thwart this cynical and theocratic agenda is work tirelessly to prevent their state legislatures from passing new, restrictive measures that are intended to provide the Court with an opportunity to “revisit” the issue. (Here in Indiana, a State Representative has already announced his intention to submit a bill that would criminalize abortions and punish the women and doctors who participated in them. I’m sure theocrats in other states are equally eager to test the anticipated new boundaries.

Given the number of deep red states populated by religious fundamentalists, the odds of defeating all of these throwbacks aren’t good. So while Trump cannot “repeal” reproductive liberty, he can sure eliminate it.

I think the legal terminology is: we’re screwed.