Supreme Court Rules State Legislatures May Be Entirely Eliminated From Redistricting

In 5-4 decision in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission the Court held that the Constitution’s Elections Clause permits voters to vest congressional redistricting authority entirely in an independent commission.   

In 2000 Arizona voters adopted Proposition 106 which places all federal redistricting authority in an independent commission. The Elections Clause states:  "[t]he Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations . . . .”

Justice Ginsburg’s majority relies on the history and purpose of the Elections Clause and the “animating principle of our Constitution that the people themselves are the originating source of all the powers of government,” in ruling that redistricting commissions may operate independently of the state legislature.

More specifically, founding era dictionaries typically defined legislatures as the “power that makes laws.” In Arizona, that includes the voters who may pass laws through initiatives. The purpose of the Elections Clause was to “empower Congress to override state elections rules” not restrict how states enact legislation. “We resist reading the Elections Clause to single out federal elections as the one area in which States may not use citizen initiatives as an alternative legislative process.” While voter initiatives did not exist at the time of the founding, the invention of them was “in full harmony with the Constitution’s conception of the people as the font of governmental power.” Finally, if state legislatures can override redistricting commissions other voter-initiated election laws may be in jeopardy.   

While Justice Ginsburg began her opinion by noting that Arizona voters adopted Proposition 106 to address partisan gerrymandering, she agreed that they have not been entirely successful at achieving this outcome.   

The Court also concluded that the Arizona legislature had standing to bring this case because Proposition 106 “completely nullify” the state legislature’s ability to participate in redistricting. And the Court concluded that a federal statute, which it did not dispute was obscure and narrow to the point of irrelevance, allowed the result in this case.

Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined the majority opinion while Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito dissented.