Monday, March 2, 2015
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, the case testing whether Arizona can use an independent commission (established by voter initiative, not by the legislature) to redraw congressional districts in light of the Election Clause's language that says that "The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof . . . ."
At its core, the arguments turn on just how pliable the term "the Legislature" is: Does it mean only the state legislature (as the legislature would have it); or does it also mean the lawmaking power of the state (as the commission would have it)?
The Court and attorneys predictably turned to text and history. The precedent, such as it is, wasn't much help.
Paul Clement, for the legislature, argued that the commission completely cuts the legislature out, by "permanently wresting that authority." It'd be a harder case, he conceded, if there were some role for the legislature. That prompted questions by Justices Kennedy and Kagan about voter-referendum-approved efforts like voter ID, or judge-drawn districts in the context of litigation: Don't those cut the legislature out completely? Clement argued that those initiatives actually delegate authority to the state legislature, not away from it. As to judge-drawn districts (a question from Justice Kennedy), Clement said that the Constitution requires the plan to go to the legislature. They also turned to line-drawing: If "the Legislature" means only the legislature, how can the legislature allow for so many exceptions (that is, how can the legislature allow any role for any other body, like a gubernatorial veto)? And doesn't the legislature still have a role under the commission system? Can't it initiate a referendum? Clement said no to this last point (although he conceded that the legislature could initiate a voter initiate, like anyone else). Still, there was some concern about where and how to draw lines.
The government, as amicus, argued that the legislature lacked standing. But this didn't gain any traction with the Court, and basically fizzled out.
Justices Scalia and Alito hit Seth Waxman, for the commission, with a series of questions about what "the legislature" means in other parts of the Constitution. Justice Kennedy jumped in with the history of state legislative appointments to the Senate, and the overriding Seventeenth Amendment. (It took the Seventeenth Amendment to take state legislatures out of Senate appointments. Why take state legislatures out of congressional line-drawing (without an amendment) here?) Waxman responded that the Court's interpretations favored the commission; but that response didn't seem to satisfy. (Again, the precedent didn't seem to persuade anyone much either way.) When Waxman turned to dictionaries to help him out, Justice Scalia (of all the Justices) pounced: "You've plucked that out of a couple of dictionaries!" Maybe this wasn't so surprising, though: Justice Scalia seemed to believe that he could decide the case on the text alone, and the idea that no other constitutional reference to "the legislature" means anything other than the legislature. Chief Justice Roberts added force when he wondered why Waxman's interpretation didn't make "the Legislature" superfluous. Waxman fell back on an argument that the Framers understood that the same word could mean different things in different contexts, but this point fell flat.
Clement at one point said that the legislature's position wouldn't foreclose the use of an independent commission to draw state legislative boundaries, and that in this way the people (and their commission) could influence the direction of the state legislature and thus influence the state legislature's congressional district map. He also said that it'd be a harder case if the commission didn't completely divest the legislature of all power in the map-drawing process.
If the people of Arizona are looking for a way to influence congressional district maps after this case, these may be all that's left.