The Supreme Court has decided Wittman v. Personhuballah, ruling against members of Congress on standing grounds. The lower court found that the congressional plan was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander, and the members of Congress challenged this holding.
In a short unanimous opinion (8 pages including the syllabus), Justice Breyer held that these members of Congress lacked standing. By deciding the case on standing grounds, the Court was able to avoid saying anything new about the racial gerrymandering cause of action it revived in a surprising way last term in a case from Alabama. (See my analysis in Racial Gerrymandering’s Questionable Revival, part of an Alabama Law Review symposium on the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.)
There are other racial gerrymandering cases working their way to the Court, including one from North Carolina. The Alabama case remains pending before the three-judge court on remand.
So how did the Court get to a unanimous opinion here? Well, combine the conservatives’ tough line on standing with the liberals’ likely belief that the lower court got it right on the merits that the Va. legislature took race too much into account in drawing districts which packed African Americans and helped Republicans get elected to Congress and you have he recipe for compromise. Add to that combination the fact that the Breyer opinion decides almost nothing. It leaves open the question whether a member of Congress might have standing to challenge a congressional districting plan if there were proof it would hurt his or her chances of reelection. In this case, the Court said there was no such evidence from those members who argued they had standing.
With this decision, the only remaining election law case of the current term is the Gov. McDonnell corruption case, another case out of Virginia. That one will likely await near the end of the term, even if it is also unanimous. It was argued the last day of the term.
[This post has been updated]