Friday, December 11, 2020
The Supreme Court ruled this week that a Delaware attorney lacked standing to challenge the state's political balancing requirements for seats on its courts. The ruling means that the Court didn't address the underlying merits question, whether the balancing requirements violate the First Amendment. It also didn't break any significant new ground on standing.
The case, Carney v. Adams, involved Delaware's two political balancing requirements for its courts, the "bare majority" requirement and the "major party" requirement. The bare majority requirement says that no more than a bare majority of judges on any of the state's five major courts "shall be of the same political party." The major party requirement says that judges not in the majority on three of the state's courts "shall be of the other major political party."
Delaware attorney James Adams sued, arguing that the provisions violated his First Amendment right to free association. There was just one problem: Adams failed to show that he was harmed by the two requirements. He hadn't applied for a judgeship and been rejected, and he hadn't even stated a determinate intent to apply for a particular judgeship for which he wouldn't qualify; he only said that he'd like to apply for a judgeship at some undefined point in the future--and that the political balancing requirements would prevent him from getting the job. So the Court ruled that he lacked standing.
Justice Breyer wrote for a unanimous Court. Justice Breyer concluded that Adams failed to show that he was "able and ready" to apply for a judgeship based on three considerations:
First, as we have laid out Adams' words "I would apply . . . " stand alone without any actual past injury, without reference to an anticipated timeframe, without prior judgeship applications, without prior relevant conversations, without efforts to determine likely openings, without other preparations or investigations, and without any other supporting evidence.
Second, the context offers Adams no support. It suggests an abstract, generalized grievance, not an actual desire to become a judge. . . .
Third, if we were to hold that Adams' few words of general intent--without more and against all contrary evidence--were sufficient here to show an "injury in fact," we would significantly weaken the longstanding legal doctrine preventing this Court from providing advisory opinions . . . .
Justice Breyer quoted Justice Powell in United States v. Richardson, reminding us why standing is an important separation-of-powers concern:
[Justice Powell] found it "inescapable" that to find standing based upon [a general interest, common to all members of the public] "would significantly alter the allocation of power at the national level, with a shift away from a democratic form of government." He added that "[w]e should be ever mindful of the contradictions that would arise if a democracy were to permit general oversight of the elected branches of government by a nonrepresentative, and in large measure insulated, judicial branch.
Justice Sotomayor concurred. She wrote to point out that the two requirements were very different and might very well require two different kinds of analysis, if and when this issue comes back to the courts. She also urged lower courts to certify the question of the severability of the two provisions to the state courts.