Vieth v. Jubelirer Case Brief

Summary of Vieth v. Jubelirer
Citation: 541 U.S. 267 (2004)

Relevant Facts: Plaintiff-Appellants Norma Jean Vieth, Richard Vieth, and Susan Furey were all registered voters in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and members of the Democratic Party. In the aftermath of the 2000 census, the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania General Assembly undertook redistricting efforts to accommodate two fewer Congressional seats. The Vieths alleged that the redistricting plan adopted constituted political gerrymandering that diminished the value of their participation in elections. Appellants brought suit against Robert Jubelirer, in his capacity as President of the Senate, and others, alleging that the redistricting plan violated the one-person-one-vote principle guaranteed by Article I, and violated their equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. Appellants cited the irregular lines of the newly created districts in addition to legislative disregard for redistricting criteria, such as maintaining traditional government boundaries. At trial before a three-judge District Court panel, the Court dismissed Appellants claims against the Commonwealth on Eleventh Amendment grounds and dismissed their gerrymandering claim as a nonjusticiable political question. However, that Court allowed the malapportionment issue to go to trial. The Commonwealth adopted a remedial plan to respond to the previous apportionment. Appellants, unhappy with the modified plan and continuing in their claims of political gerrymandering, petitioned the District Court to impose remedial districts. The District Court denied their motion, found the remedial districts were properly apportioned, and this appeal followed.

Issue: Whether claims of political gerrymandering of Congressional districts by a State legislature are justiciable controversies in Federal Court?

Holding: No, the Court held that the claims here were not justiciable. The plurality found that no claims of political gerrymandering were justiciable as there are no judicially discernible or manageable standards for evaluating such claims. Justice Kennedy agreed that the claims here were not justiciable, but declined to rule out the possibility of judicial discernment for a proper procedure in a future, appropriate case.

Reasoning: Justice Scalia announced the judgment of the Court and authored a plurality opinion, joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices O’Connor and Thomas.. He pointed out that here the Court was revisiting an earlier decision (Davis v. Bandemer, 478 U.S. 109 (1986)). In that case, the Court failed to reach a majority regarding the appropriate standard for reviewing political gerrymandering claims. Here, Justice Scalia, joined by three others, would have preferred to overrule Bandemer and hold that no proper standard exists and political gerrymandering claims are always nonjusticiable. However, that position did not command a majority of the Court and thus the holding was limited to this case.

Concurrence: Justice Scalia, in his plurality opinion, began by pointing out that political gerrymandering dates to the earliest years of the Republic. Furthermore, he pointed out that the Constitution provides no guidance on the subject. In determining that a particular issue is a nonjusticiable political question, one of the primary considerations is lack of any discernible judicial standard for managing such claims. Justice Scalia also pointed out that the plurality standard from Bandemer (requiring discriminatory intent and discriminatory effect) has proven unworkable with the outcome in application producing the same result as if the claims had been held nonjusticiable. Furthermore, Justice Scalia found that neither the “predominant motivation" standard suggested by the Appellants nor the “totality of the circumstances" test from Bandemer were readily discernible or capable of judicial application. The plurality also spent time addressing the competing plans offered by the dissenters, and in each case determining that the suggested standard was unworkable. Finally, the plurality pointed out that the stare decisis effect of Bandemer was weak, given the fractured Court in that case and the failure to produce any reliance expectations.
Justice Kennedy concurred in the judgment of the Court, writing separately to point out that he would not foreclose the possibility of a judicially manageable standard merely because one could not be found at present. While Justice Kennedy agreed that no appropriate standard had been suggested here, and pointed out that political classifications alone are insufficient to raise a proper claim, he concluded that future cases may well be decided on a First Amendment association basis rather than an equal protection analysis.

Dissent: Justice Stevens dissented. At the outset, he pointed out that five Justices agreed that political gerrymandering claims could potentially be decided by the Court, and the lack of agreement at present should not foreclose all judicial review. He preferred to apply the same standard to political gerrymandering as in racial gerrymandering cases, wherein the Court evaluated both the purpose and effect of the redistricting plan.
Justice Souter dissented, joined by Justice Ginsburg. Agreeing that the Court could find an appropriate standard, Justice Souter would have adopted differing standards as part of a prima facie case depending on the type of claim involved. Specifically, he would have adopted a different standard for claims involving a single district versus those for statewide plans. Based on the prima facie case standards announced, Justice Souter would have then shifted the burden to the defendants to demonstrate non-discriminatory purposes for the plan adopted.
Justice Breyer dissented. He identified and listed several factual scenarios in which the Court could readily identify political redistricting for the purposes of partisan advantage, to the unconstitutional detriment of minority political groups. In his opinion, the Court could test for creation of “entrenched" districts whereby the minority party was given a heavily favored district to their detriment in other contested races. Furthermore, he opined that the Court could determine situations in which the only possible motivation for district lines being drawn in a certain way was partisan political advantage. Under such circumstances, he concluded that judicial remedies were not only possible, but appropriate.

Conclusion: The fractured Court here failed to reach a consensus. The plurality determined that political gerrymandering claims are non-justiciable for want of a judicially discernible and manageable standard. Justice Kennedy agreed as to this case, but not as to political gerrymandering generally. Four dissenters, in three opinions, suggested alternative standards for adjudicating political gerrymandering claims. The ultimate upshot here is that the state of political gerrymandering claims is as it was before: not judicially foreclosed but nearly impossible absent a standard that can command a majority of the Court.

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