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Supreme Court Decision Update - Lance v. Coffman

ballot.gifThe first of today’s new Supreme decisions comes in Lance v. Coffman (PDF of the opinion), a short little decision about when folks have standing to bring a lawsuit against their state legislature when the state politicos allegedly fail to abide by the Constitution.

QuizLaw Analysis: This is a per curiam decision, meaning its unanimous and unsigned. In the short little 6-pager, the Court basically reaffirms older case law by saying that a private citizen has no right to sue state legislators for failing to follow the law. The law in question here was the Elections Clause, and a state legislature’s failure to follow does not injure private citizens in a way which gives them a “case and controversy.” Or so say the Supremes. So private citizens can’t sue on behalf of themselves for their state legislature’s failure to abide. Which just means we need to vote The Dude into office because then this wouldn’t be an issue - as everyone knows, “The Dude abides.”

What is the Election Clause? Well, it comes from Article 1, Section 4 of the Constitution, and reads as follows:

The 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, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.

Ok, and what’s the story here? After the 2000 census, Colorado legislators wanted to redraw congressional districts to make room for a new Representative, but they weren’t able to to get it done so the process eventually wound up in court and “a state court did it for them” in 2002. Then in 2003, a redistricting law was finally passed, and it was signed into law by Colorado’s Governor. This led to a lawsuit by the state Attorney General, who didn’t want this new plan to take effect, because the Colorado Constitution says there can only be one redistricting per census. This went up to the Colorado Supremes, who sided with the Attorney General, finding that a district created by a judge is the same as one created by the Legislature, so the 2002 redistricting used up the state’s once-per-census chit. And the court also said there was no problem with regard to the Elections Clause.

Right after this ruling, four private citizens from Colorado filed a federal action arguing that their rights under the Elections Clause were violated. They were not involved in the state lawsuit, but their argument was that the first redistricting was not valid because the Elections Clause says that only the Legislature can prescribe such things, not the court. The District Court first said that it didn’t have jurisdiction to hear this case, but last year the Supremes vacated that decision and told the District Court it did.

So on a second go-round, the District Court took a closer look at things and found that the citizens did have standing to bring their claims. However, the court said the lawsuit was barred by issue preclusion.

Issue what-now? Issue preclusion. Essentially, the District Court said that this issue was already decided in the state lawsuit, with the Colorado Supremes rejected the argument that the Elections Clause was violated. Thus:

[T]he plaintiffs “stand in privity with the Secretary of State and the General Assembly,” who were on the losing side in the [Colorado] litigation.

So what do the Supremes have to say? Most of the decision is a history lesson. The Court begins by reminding us that plaintiffs must have standing to bring a lawsuit, as this is one of the required components of the requirement that there be a “case or controversy.” Standing “requires a plaintiff to demonstrate the now-familiar elements of injury in fact, causation, and redressability.” The Court then goes on to discuss several prior decisions:

“We have consistently held that a plaintiff raising only a generally available grievance about government - claiming only harm to his and every citizen’s interest in proper application of the Constitution and laws, and seeking relief that no more directly and tangibly benefits him than it does the public at large - does not state an Article III case or controversy.

For example, in 1992, the Supremes rejected a case where a citizen tried to challenge the procedure used in ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment. Similarly, the Court has dismissed citizen lawsuits: (i) challenging judicial appointments allegedly made in violation of the Constitution; (ii) claiming that the Feds violated the Constitution by failing to disclose CIA expenditures; and (iii) arguing that Congressmen who were also in the military Reserves were violating the Constitution.

The Supremes say that the current case is just like all of these, because the plaintiff citizens don’t have any specific or personal injury, and their only alleged injury is that the Elections Clause has not been filed:

This injury is precisely the kind of undifferentiated, generalized grievance about the conduct of government that we have refused to countenance in the past. It is quite different from the sorts of injuries alleged by plaintiffs in voting rights cases where we have found standing.

In other words, “get outta’ my court!”