Equal Protection

Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue raises an issue the Supreme Court has long wrestled with:  if a state-aid program violates a state constitutional prohibition against mixing church and state because religious institutions may participate, does discontinuing that program violate the federal constitution’s Free Exercise or Equal Protection Clauses.

Montana statutes allow taxpayers to receive tax credits for contribution to Student Scholarship Organizations (SSO) that give students scholarships to attend private schools, including religious schools. The Montana Department of Revenue adopted Rule 1 disallowing religious schools to participate in the program because it concluded their participation would violate Montana’s constitution. Parents of students attending religiously-affiliated private schools challenged Rule 1.

The Supreme Court heard oral argument—yet again—in two cases arguing it should adopt a standard for when partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional. Before argument court watchers were focused on Chief Justice Roberts, but during argument Justice Kavanaugh stole the show.

In 1986 in Davis v. Bandemer six Supreme Court Justices agreed that some amount of partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional. But the Court has never laid out a test for making the determination.

Most recently, last term, with Justice Kennedy still on the bench, the Supreme Court again failed to articulate a standard for unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering. The two cases before the Court today came from North Carolina and Maryland favoring Republicans and Democrats, respectively. By almost any measure the gerrymanders were unapologetic and extreme.   

Now that the Court has five solidly conservative members many have speculated that these Justices will rule that partisan gerrymandering claims raise non-justiciable political questions, effectively ending litigation over this question.

In 1986 a majority of the Supreme Court agreed that partisan gerrymandering may be unconstitutional in certain circumstances. But in that case and since then the Court has failed to agree on a standard for when partisan gerrymandering crosses the line.

Last term in Gill v. Whitford the Supreme Court again failed to articulate a standard for unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering. Instead, it held that the challengers failed to demonstrate they had standing to bring their case.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear two partisan gerrymandering cases this term.

What if a district court adopts a redistricting plan and the state legislature later codifies that plan. May the same district court later rule the redistricting plan is unlawful and/or unconstitutional? That is what the Supreme Court will decide in Abbott v. Perez.

A number of persons and advocacy groups challenged the Texas Legislature’s 2011 state legislative and congressional redistricting plan claiming it discriminated against black and Hispanic voters in violation of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause and the Voting Rights Act.

A three-judge district court issued a remedial redistricting plan which the U.S. Supreme Court vacated in 2012. The district court then drew another remedial redistricting plan called plan C235. In plan C235 the court reconfigured nine challenged districts from the legislature’s 2011 plan but retained two districts, CD27 and CD35, without reconfiguration. In 2013 the state legislature ultimately adopted plan C235.        

When a three-judge panel struck down North Carolina’s 2016 Congressional redistricting plan the case received significant media attention. Supreme Court redistricting cases rarely receive as much fanfare.

The decision garnered so much attention because it is the third three-judge panel in a relatively short period of time to rule a partisan gerrymander is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has yet to articulate if and exactly when redistricting in favor of a political party is unconstitutional. But such a ruling may be imminent. The Supreme Court has already heard a case from Wisconsin and will hear a case from Maryland this term involving the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering.

Pages