June 29, 2015

Supreme Court Decides Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission

On June 29, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistrict Commission, No. 13-1314, holding that a State legislature has standing to challenge a State constitutional amendment that removes its congressional redistricting authority and gives it to an independent commission, but the Elections Clause of the Constitution and 2 U.S.C. § 2a(c) both allow a State to use a commission to adopt congressional districts.

By referendum, Arizona’s voters amended their state constitution to provide that the boundaries of electoral districts for Congress would be drawn by an independent commission, rather than by the state legislature itself. After the 2010 census, the commission adopted redistricting maps for congressional districts in the State. Both chambers of Arizona’s legislature voted to challenge the constitutional amendment, and sued in federal court, arguing that the commission and its proposed congressional districts violated the Elections Clause of the Constitution, which provides that “[t]he 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….” The legislature argued that allowing an independent commission to establish U.S. congressional districts did not satisfy the constitutional requirement that such matters be prescribed “by the Legislature” in each state.

A three-judge district court first held that the Arizona Legislature had standing to sue, but then rejected the legislature’s claims on the merits, holding that the Elections Clause allowed Arizona’s use of a commission to adopt congressional districts.

On direct appeal from the district court, the Supreme Court affirmed in a 5-4 vote.  The Court first held that the Arizona Legislature has standing to challenge the state constitutional amendment, noting that it “strips the Legislature of its alleged prerogative to initiate redistricting,” and that the “deprivation would be remedied by a court order enjoining the enforcement of” the amendment.  The Court concluded that this conferred standing even though the Legislature had not actually enacted its own redistricting plan in violation of the amendment.

On the merits, the Court held that the Elections Clause and 2 U.S.C. § 2a(c) allowed Arizona to use a commission to adopt U.S. congressional districts. The Court first noted that Congress has exercised its authority under the Elections Clause to “make or alter” state election law by enacting 2 U.S.C. § 2a(c), which provides in part that a state’s congressional districts may be drawn “in the manner provided by the law thereof.”  The Court held that this statute permits states to prescribe redistricting “by the legislature, court decree, or a commission established by the people’s exercise of the initiative.”  The Court rejected the Arizona Legislature’s argument that the Elections Clause does not empower Congress to authorize redistricting by state bodies other than the elected state legislature.

The Court went on to hold that, even in the absence of the federal statute, the Election Clause’s use of the word “Legislature” refers simply to “the power that makes laws” in a given state.  The Court concluded that the Elections Clause “surely was not adopted to diminish a State’s authority to determine its own lawmaking powers,” and that “initiatives adopted by the voters legislate for the State just as measures passed by the representative body do.” Thus, the Court held, the entire electorate of a State constitutes the “Legislature” under the Elections Clause for purposes of redistricting referenda. 

The Court noted that it was not holding that other references to state legislatures in the Constitution necessarily include the people exercising their referendum authority, because “[t]he meaning of the word ‘legislature,’ used several times in the Federal Constitution, differs according to the connection in which it is employed.”

Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined.  Chief Justice Roberts filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito joined.  Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Thomas joined, and Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Scalia joined.

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