June 17, 2019

Supreme Court Decides Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill

On June 17, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill, No. 18-281, holding that the Virginia House of Delegates and its speaker lacked standing to appeal an order requiring the redrawing of 11 state legislative districts, because the House was neither an agent of the state nor had it suffered an actual injury by a judicial decision invalidating the legislative districts.

Following the 2010 census, Virginia redrew its state legislative districts in 2011. The bill that redrew the districts was passed by both chambers of Virginia’s state legislature: the House of Delegates and the Senate.

Voters in 12 of the districts sued state agencies and election officials (known as the “State Defendants”) and alleged that their districts were racially gerrymandered in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The House of Delegates and its speaker (referred to as the “House”) intervened and generally defended the constitutionality of the challenged districts. Two judges of a three-judge district court eventually held that 11 of the redrawn districts unconstitutionally “sorted voters . . . based on the color of their skin.” It ordered that each of the 11 districts be redrawn and that further elections proceed under the redrawn districts.

The State of Virginia then threw in the towel. Its attorney general, the elected official with the exclusive authority to represent the State’s interests in civil litigation, announced that the State would not be pursuing a further appeal. But the House, as an intervening defendant, appealed the order requiring redrawn districts. The State Defendants moved to dismiss the appeal for lack of jurisdiction because the House lacked standing to appeal the order to the Supreme Court.

Without addressing the racial gerrymandering claim on the merits, the Supreme Court granted the motion and dismissed the appeal for lack of standing. It held that the House, as a “single chamber of a bicameral legislature, has no standing to appeal the invalidation of the redistricting plan separately from the State of which it is a part.”

The Court rejected two arguments the House advanced for its alleged standing. First, the Court held that the House was not an agent of the state of Virginia, and thus could not defend the constitutionality of its statute in court. Had Virginia designated the House to defend the statute in court, of course it would have standing to do so. But because Virginia law vested exclusive responsibility for representing the State’s interests in litigation in the attorney general, and the attorney general had declined to pursue an appeal, the House could not do so.

Second, the Court rejected the House’s arguments that it suffered actual injury as a body, distinct from the interests of its representatives. Though the House claimed injury in not being able to defend a law it helped pass, that argument failed because the Court “has never held that a judicial decision invalidating a state law as unconstitutional inflicts a discrete, cognizable injury on each organ of government that participated in the law’s passage.” The Court also held that the House’s alleged injuries of (1) changes in membership; (2) costlier elections; and (3) more difficult election campaigns were insufficient because those harms would be suffered by individual legislators or candidates, not the House as a body.

Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion for the court, in which Justices Thomas, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Gorsuch joined. Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Breyer and Kavanaugh joined.

Download Opinion of the Court.

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