Tuesday, June 30, 2015
I had not been following the Arizona redistricting-by-commission case very closely, but I've been reading the Supreme Court's opinions from beginning to end the past couple of weeks (the joy!), and yesterday brought the Court's decision in that case. It is a very bad decision. I don't mean bad as a matter of policy; I don't know enough to have an informed opinion on that. But bad, very bad, as a matter of law.
The bad law exemplified by the case is what one might call adverb law--law about how to do law lawfully. The Justices in the majority adopted an approach to the text of the Constitution that defeats a central purpose for having a written Constitution--to determine and to fix the rules so that people can hold the government (and themselves) to those rules later.
The legal text at issue was the "Elections Clause" of the U.S. Constitution: "The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and 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." (emphasis added)
Arizona voters, acting via initiative, found a way to bypass redistricting by the Arizona legislature; they vested redistricting authority in an independent commission instead.
The Arizona legislature lodged the obvious legal objection: The Elections Clause says that redistricting is to be done "in each State by the legislature thereof," but the Arizona initiative places redistricting authority outside the state legislature.
The legislature lost. The same five-Justice majority that redefined civil marriage last Friday redefined "Legislature" yesterday. In an opinion for the Court by Justice Ginsburg, the Supreme Court held that redistricting by an independent commission counts as redistricting "by the Legislature" under the Elections Clause. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the main dissent, which interprets as well all the majority interprets as poorly.
While the willingness of one Justice to write and four others to sign on to loose legal analysis like the majority's is disheartening, a comparison of Justice Ginsburg's opinion for the Court with Chief Justice Roberts's dissent illustrates another virtue of a written Constitution: We can more easily identify when the Justices approve unlawful law by twisting our written Constitution than by operating outside the constitutional text entirely.
This is cold comfort, I know. But at least it provides the basis for warm condemnation.
So go, read the Chief's dissent. Don't be a chump.