Capitol Comments

In Rucho v. Common Cause the Supreme Court held 5-4 that partisan gerrymandering claims are non-justiciable—meaning that a federal court cannot decide them.

Partisan gerrymandering is the practice of drawing legislative districts to benefit one political party. In Davis v. Bandemer (1986) a majority of the Supreme Court held that partisan gerrymandering cases are justiciable. In that case and since then the Court has been unable to lay out a standard for when partisan dominance “is too much.” In Rucho v. Common Cause the Supreme Court announced it will stop trying.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion which his conservative colleagues joined (Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh). Unsurprisingly, the Court emphasized the role of state legislatures in districting:  “The Framers were aware of electoral districting problems and considered what to do about them. They settled on a characteristic approach, assigning the issue to the state legislatures, expressly checked and balanced by the Federal Congress.”

Chief Justice Roberts joined his more liberal colleagues (Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan) concluding the reasons Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross gave for adding the citizenship question to the 2020 census were pretextual in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA).

Presumably, Secretary Ross will now be able to offer different reasons for why he wanted to add the citizenship question. If he chooses to do so those reasons may also be challenged in court as pretextual or discriminatory. If he chooses to offer no different reasons, presumably, the 2020 census for won’t contain a citizenship question.    

In Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association v. Thomas the Supreme Court held 7-2 that Tennessee’s law requiring alcohol retailers to live in the state for two years to receive a license is unconstitutional. The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief in this case arguing the law was constitutional.  

Two constitutional provisions are at issue in this case. The dormant Commerce Clause prohibits state laws that unduly restrict interstate commerce. Both parties agree that if Tennessee’s durational-residency requirement applied to anyone wishing to sell anything other than alcohol it would violate the dormant Commerce Clause.

Auer deference, courts deferring to agencies’ reasonable interpretations of their ambiguous regulations, is alive following the Supreme Court’s decision in Kisor v. Wilkie. But, in the opinion of a few Justices, it is only on life support.

The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief in this case asking the Supreme Court to overturn Auer v. Robbins (1997). In that case the Supreme Court reaffirmed its holding in Bowles v. Seminole Rock & Sand Co. (1945), that courts must defer to an agency’s interpretation of its own regulations.

As discussed in the SLLC amicus brief, states and local governments object to Auer deference because it gives agencies a lot of power. They both write regulations and may interpret them as they like without significant court scrutiny. Agencies aren’t required to receive notice-and-comment related to their interpretations of regulations. New administrations may change the interpretations at their whim. And agencies may purposely write ambiguous regulations knowing courts will defer to their interpretations of them. If Auer deference wasn’t available, courts would interpret regulations without deferring to agency interpretations of them.     

In Moda Health Plan v. United States the Supreme Court will decide whether Congress may enact appropriations riders restricting the sources of funding available to pay health insurers for losses incurred that were supposed to be paid per federal law.

The Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) risk corridor program provided that if a health insurance plan participating in the exchange lost money between 2014-2016 it would receive a payment from the federal government based on a formula defined in the statute. If it made money the plan had to pay the federal government based on a formula. The purpose of the program was to induce health insurance companies to offer plans on the exchange despite the fact they didn’t have reliable data to price the plans.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified a particular funding source the federal government could use to make payments. Congress passed appropriations riders for all three years disallowing that funding source to be used to make risk corridor payments.

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