December 10, 2020

Supreme Court Decides Carney v. Adams

On December 10, 2020, the United States Supreme Court reversed the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Carney v. Adams, No. 19-309 (10-December-2020), holding that James Adams, a political independent, did not have Article III standing to challenge Delaware’s judicial political balance requirements because he did not establish he was “able and ready” to apply for a judgeship in the near future and thus did not suffer a concrete injury in fact.

Under Delaware’s Constitution, “no more than a bare majority of members of any of [its] courts shall be of the same political party.” The Delaware Constitution separately requires the persons not in the bare majority to “be of the other major political party” in the Supreme Court, the Chancery Court, and the Superior Court. Adams, a Delaware lawyer and registered political independent, brought suit against Delaware’s governor, alleging that both of these requirements violate the First Amendment “right to freedom of association by making him ineligible to become a judge unless he rejoined a major political party.”

The federal district court denied the Governor’s motion for summary judgment based on Adams’s alleged lack of standing, and granted Adams summary judgment on the merits. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part, holding that while “Adams had standing to challenge the major party requirement,” he “did not have standing to challenge the bare majority requirement,” as that requirement “does not preclude independents from eligibility for any vacancy.” With regard to all of the courts, the Third Circuit found the major party requirement unconstitutional, and as to the three courts subject to both requirements, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals found that the two provisions were not severable.

While the Supreme Court granted certiorari to address the constitutionality of the majority party requirement and its severability, the Court asked the parties to address Article III standing and ultimately concluded that standing was where the case “begins and ends.” Where Article III standing requires an actual or imminent, concrete and particularized injury in fact, Adams “suffered a ‘generalized grievance’,” because he was not “able and ready” to apply for a judgeship. As the Court recounted, he was a Democrat and able to apply before he retired in late 2015. He reactivated his bar status and changed his party affiliation in 2017, just before he filed suit. The Court characterized the case as “highly fact-specific” in finding that his “few words of general intent” did not demonstrate concrete injury and did not show that he was “able and ready” to apply in the “reasonably imminent future.”

The Court’s opinion was authored by Justice Breyer, and joined by all other Members of the Court, with the exception of Justice Barrett, who took no part in the decision. Justice Sotomayor filed a separate concurring opinion to express the importance of certifying the underlying constitutional question to the state’s highest court. 

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