Monday, May 23, 2016
A unanimous Supreme Court ruled today in Wittman v. Personhubalah that three members of Congress from Virginia lacked standing to appeal a federal court's rejection of the state's districting plan. The ruling means that the district court's decision stays in place, and that districting plan designed by a court-appointed special master and approved by the court now sets the lines for Virginia's congressional districts.
In this up-and-down, politically charged case, the Court not only avoided a thorny underlying question of race-based districting (and all the politics that go with it), but it also avoided the hardest standing issues in favor of resolving the case unanimously on narrower standing grounds.
The case involves the state's 2012 redistricting plan, which packed black voters into a certain congressional district. Sponsors of the measure said that they did this in order to comply with the one-person-one-vote principle and to comply with nonretrogression under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. A district court struck the plan (twice) as a racial gerrymander, and the state declined to appeal. But Republican members of Congress, who intervened on the side of the state, tried to take the case to the Supreme Court. (In the meantime, a court-appointed special master drew a new district map, and the court approved it.)
The Supreme Court rejected the appeal for lack of standing. The Court said that one member of Congress, who challenged the district court's ruling because it would have made it harder for him to get elected in his current district, lacked standing because he was already running, and would continue to run (irrespective of the Court's ruling), in another district. In other words, that member failed to show that a Court ruling would redress his harm. The Court said that two other members of Congress, who challenged the district court's ruling for the same reason, "have not identified record evidence establishing their alleged harm."
The Court dodged the harder standing issue--whether a representative has been sufficiently harmed based on district lines that would make it less likely that he or she could get elected.
The Court also dodged the underlying issue, whether a race impermissibly dominated when a state's redistricting plan packed black voters into a district for the stated reasons to comply with one-person-one-vote and non-retrogression. The last time the Court took up a similar question, almost exactly a year ago, in Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, the Court also avoided ruling squarely on the merits. Instead, the Court outlined some guiding principles and remanded the case for further proceedings.
Justice Breyer wrote the opinion for the unanimous Court.