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Legal Challenges to Congressional Redistricting Must be Referred to a Three-Judge Panel

By Rob Tyson

At the end of last year, the US Supreme Court held in Shapiro v. McManus that any case challenging the constitutionality of the redrawing of congressional districts must be referred to a three-judge panel.  Justice Scalia delivered the opinion for a unanimous court.

In Shapiro, the plaintiffs claimed the Maryland congressional plan burdened their first amendment right of political association.  The plaintiffs also sought a three-judge panel to decide the issue.  The US District Court judge determined, on his own, that no relief could be granted and dismissed the action himself rather than notifying the Chief Judge of the 4th Circuit to convene a three-judge panel.

Over forty years ago, federal law began requiring a “district court of three judges [to] be convened . . . when an action is filed challenging the constitutionality of the apportionment of congressional districts . . . ,” 28 U. S. C. §2284(a), and has provided that “the judge [presented with a request for a three-judge court] shall, unless he determines that three judges are not required, immediately notify the chief judge of the circuit, who shall designate two other judges” to serve. §2284(b)(1).

Noting that “Section 2284(a) could not be clearer,” the Supreme Court held there are no exceptions to the mandate for a three-judge panel when plaintiffs challenge the drawing of the congressional maps.  On that basis, the Supreme Court overturned the trial court’s action dismissing the case and held the plaintiffs are entitled to make their case before a three-judge panel.

The impact of this ruling should be negligible since courts presently almost always refer redistricting challenges to three-judge panels.