May 23, 2016

Supreme Court Decides Wittman v. Personhuballah

On May 23, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Wittman v. Personhuballah, No. 14-1504, holding that Members of Congress from Virginia did not have standing to challenge a district court’s order finding a redistricting plan unconstitutional because they could not articulate or support any alleged harm that could be remedied by judicial decision in the case.

In 2013, Virginia adopted a congressional redistricting plan, based on the results of the 2010 census. Three voters from Congressional District 3 challenged the plan, arguing that the redrawing of that district’s lines was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. Ten Members of Congress from Virginia intervened in the case to help defend the redistricting plan. A divided three-judge panel sided with the voters. Virginia did not appeal, but the intervenor Members of Congress did.

In that prior appeal, the Court vacated the district court’s judgment and remanded the case for reconsideration in light of its 2015 decision in Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama. On remand, the district court once again found that the redistricting plan was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. And once again, Virginia did not appeal, but the Members of Congress did.

In this appeal, the Court asked the Members of Congress to provide supplemental briefs addressing whether they had standing to challenge the district court’s decision. The Members of Congress argued that the district court’s order, if upheld, would result in a redrawing of their districts and would harm some of their reelection prospects. In the meantime, a Special Master appointed by the district court developed a new districting plan.

The Court held that the intervenor Members of Congress lacked standing to challenge the district court’s order and dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction. Although 10 individual Members originally intervened, by this point only three remained involved and claimed they had standing — Representatives Wittman, Forbes, and Brat.

Representative Forbes is the Republican incumbent in Virginia’s Congressional District 4. Forbes argued that unless the original redistricting plan was upheld, his district would be transformed from 48 percent Democratic to 60 percent Democratic, and he would be forced to run for Congressional District 2. Shortly after oral argument, however, Forbes notified the Court that he was going to run in District 2, no matter the outcome of the case. Thus, the Court noted that it could not see how any injury that Forbes might have suffered “is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision,” and held that he lacked standing.

Representatives Wittman and Brat are Republicans who represent Congressional Districts 1 and 7, respectively. They argued that unless the original redistricting plan was upheld, a portion of their “base electorate” would be replaced with unfavorable Democratic voters, reducing the likelihood of their reelection. But, the Court noted, even assuming this kind of injury is legally cognizable, Representatives Wittman and Brat presented no record evidence supporting their alleged harm. The briefs focused entirely on Districts 3 and 4. Thus, they also failed to demonstrate that they had standing to appeal.

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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