In many politically important cases before the Supreme Court, prognosticators often (correctly) surmise that Justice Kennedy will be the swing vote. However, on Monday the court took up a redistricting case, Gill v. Whitford, where we not only think Justice Kennedy will be the swing vote, he already has been the swing vote on the very same issue before the court and will surely be so again here.
The issue of political gerrymandering has made its way up to the high court on numerous occasions previously. However, the standard for political gerrymandering claims has actually yet to be definitively decided, despite the court’s best efforts on at least two prior occasions.
In Davis v. Bandemer, 478 U. S. 109 (1986), the Supreme Court dealt with the question of whether partisan redistricting could ever give rise to a justiciable equal protection claim. The court, 6-3, held that such claims were indeed justiciable, but could not agree on the appropriate legal standard. So, essentially, we agree that there is a standard, but we can’t agree on what it is yet.
The four-Justice plurality concluded that plaintiffs could win only upon a showing of “both intentional discrimination against an identifiable political group and an actual discriminatory effect on that group.” So, intent and effect. The concurring opinion, on behalf of two Justices, agreed with the plurality that a plaintiff should show intent and effect, but believed that the intent of the legislature must have been solely for partisan ends.
Eighteen years later, the court tried again in Vieth v. Jubelirer, 541 U.S. 267 (2004). However, the court fractured there as well and actually took a step backwards. By a vote of 5-4, five justices rejected the plaintiffs’ political gerrymandering claim and also agreed that no discernible, manageable standard existed at all. These five justices rejected every possible standard presented to them, including the standards previously proposed by the plurality and concurring opinions in Davis.
That is where things go haywire. Of those five justices, a four-justice plurality found that no discernible standard could be established and that partisan gerrymandering claims were simply not justiciable. However, Justice Kennedy – the fifth vote against the plaintiffs – found that while no adequate standard had yet been devised, future courts should not be foreclosed from identifying one. The four liberal justices found that an adequate standard already existed.
Essentially, the four conservative justices found that no adequate standard existed or could ever exist, and the four liberal justices thought that there already existed an adequate standard. Then there was Justice Kennedy, all by himself, finding that no adequate standard currently existed, that it might exist in the future, that he didn’t know what it was, and that he was not preventing courts from developing such a standard.
In discussing what type of standard would be appropriate, Justice Kennedy implored courts to exercise “great caution” so as to avoid an “unprecedented intervention in the American political process.” Thus, Kennedy wrote,
“A determination that a gerrymander violates the law must rest on something more than the conclusion that political classifications were applied. It must rest instead on a conclusion that the classifications, though generally permissible, were applied in an invidious manner or in a way unrelated to any legitimate legislative objective.”
Kennedy could not identify such a standard at the time. However, “[t]hat no such standard has emerged in this case should not be taken to prove that none will emerge in the future.”
So, that is where we are now: asking whether Justice Kennedy can be convinced that an appropriate, manageable standard has now been identified. Enter Gill v. Whitford.
The case deals with the Wisconsin State Assembly redistricting plan. Wisconsin is a closely divided swing state. Obama won Wisconsin in 2008 and 2012, and Trump won in 2016; the state has one democratic and one republican senator, and statewide vote totals typically hover around 50/50. However, due to a redistricting plan, “Act 43”, in 2012, 2014 and 2016, Republicans won over 60% of the seats even though the statewide vote remained nearly tied. The District Court found that Act 43 “was intended to burden the representational rights of Democratic voters.” The three-judge District Court panel then struck down Act 43.
After Act 43 was struck down by the District Court, Wisconsin petitioned for cert to the Supreme Court and also asked for a stay of the District Court’s ruling. The court granted cert on Monday and also granted the stay petition by a 5-4 margin, with Kennedy in the majority along with the other conservatives. Given the court’s breakdown on the stay motion, it seems reasonably clear that the four liberals will be voting to uphold the ruling of the District Court on its merits. Thus, Kennedy is again in the middle of a deeply divided court.
That gets us to the legal standard adopted by the District Court and now being reviewed by the Supreme Court. The District Court required a plaintiff to demonstrate: 1) discriminatory intent, 2) a large and durable discriminatory effect, and 3) a lack of a legitimate justification. This hinges on intent and effect like the rejected standards of yesteryear, but it also requires a third prong seemingly tailored to Kennedy’s Vieth concurrence: a lack of a legitimate justification.
This may pass muster because it closely tracks Kennedy’s own words in Vieth and is, as a practical matter, an extraordinarily tough standard for plaintiffs to meet. Under this standard, a legislature’s redistricting plan would be upheld if the state could simply demonstrate a legitimate, non-invidious reason for it. This is similar to but more difficult than even the familiar “rational basis review”, which upholds governmental action against non-suspect classes when it is rationally related to a legitimate governmental purpose. Under both standards, providing the court with a legitimate reason for the conduct is sufficient to withstand judicial scrutiny. In fact, under the proposed rule here, the plaintiffs would then also be required to demonstrate discriminatory intent and effect.
Based on his history on this issue, Justice Kennedy is not going to endorse an easy standard for plaintiffs in these cases, so proposing one would be pointless. Indeed, the proposed standard here would uphold all but the most brazen gerrymanders, and that may be the point.
Ultimately, we know that Justice Kennedy wants to thread the needle between the protection of fundamental individual rights and the unnecessary judicial intrusion into the political process. Whether that is done here remains to be seen, but rest assured that it will be Justice Kennedy making that decision on behalf of the court.