ELECT Blog Election Law Essays on Current Topics

United States Supreme Court: Independent Commissions Can Draw Electoral District Lines

In 2000, Arizona voters adopted an initiative that amended the Arizona Constitution, removing redistricting authority from the state legislature and vesting that authority in an independent commission. The Arizona legislature sued the commission seeking a declaration that the commission and its congressional districting map violated the Election Clause of the United States Constitution. According to the legislature, the Elections Clause precluded a commission, created by initiative, from drawing state and congressional districting lines. The Elections Clause provides that the “Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof.”

In a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s judgment, holding that the Elections Clause permits the use of a commission to adopt congressional districts. The Court found that the Arizona Constitution puts the electorate on equal footing with the legislature. The Court found that “[f]or the delegates to Arizona’s constitutional convention, direct lawmaking was a principal issu[e].” Specifically, “the Arizona Constitution ‘establishes the electorate [of Arizona] as a coordinate source of legislation . . . .’” With respect to the Elections Clause, the Court found that in addition to empowering Congress to override state election rules, the Clause “was intended to act as a safeguard against manipulation of electoral rules by politicians and factions in the States to entrench themselves or place their interests over those of the electorate.” Thus, the Court concluded that “[b]anning lawmaking by initiative to direct a State’s method of apportioning congressional districts would do more than stymie attempts to curb partisan gerrymandering . . . .” It would also cast doubt on numerous other election laws adopted by the initiative method of legislating.”

Potential Impact
As to redistricting, states that currently utilize independent commissions to assist or draw its congressional districts, clearly are empowered to continue. Will other states jump on this proverbial bandwagon? Maybe! For states that have been fraught with partisan bickering at the start of each decade, they might consider using an independent body to ‘lessen” the politics. But at the end of the day, state legislators will fight hard to preserve their ability to draw districts— i.e., political power and preservation at its rawest.
This opinion upholds the Arizona initiative, creating the independent commission, as established and voted for by the citizens of the State of Arizona. The Court acknowledges initiatives are an acceptable way to make laws. Not only does the legislature have the authority to make laws, but also per this decision, the voters of a state can enact laws. Will citizens in other states now feel more inspired to start passing laws via initiatives? If a state legislature doesn’t take action to satisfy persons advocating for a particular issue, one could see these citizens now taking the road of passing an initiative to obtain their goal. Going through the process to pass an initiative is difficult and time consuming, but now the Supreme Court has authorized it as a viable option to enact laws, it might become more commonplace.
Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Indep. Redistricting Comm’n, No. 13-1314 (slip op.) (June 29, 2015)

Read the full opinion here.