To what extent may a single-judge district court render a decision on the merits of a claim that is otherwise covered by the Three-Judge Court Act before the case is actually referred to a three-judge panel?
The Supreme Court will decide the scope of authority given to a single judge in cases that are otherwise referable to a three-judge panel. See Brief for Petitioners, Stephen M. Shapiro et al. at 1. Shapiro argues that the Three-Judge Court Act prohibits a single-judge district court from dismissing non-frivolous reapportionment complaints for failure to state a cause of action because the statute limits federal court review to subject-matter jurisdiction. See id. at 17. McManus argues that the Act creates a procedural framework wherein single-judge district courts may dismiss claims for failure to state a cause of action without convening a three-judge court for every reapportionment complaint. See Brief for Respondents, David J. McManus, Jr., et al. at 15–17. The Supreme Court’s resolution of this case could affect the ability of Americans to challenge the constitutionality of state election laws. See Brief for Petitioners at 9.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
May a single-judge district court determine that three judges are not required to hear an action that is otherwise covered by 28 U.S.C. § 2284(a) on the ground that the complaint fails to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6)?
In 1910, Congress passed the Three-Judge Court Act requiring that a panel of three judges collectively hear and determine certain allegations of unconstitutional government action. See Brief for Petitioners, Stephen M. Shapiro et al. at 3. The Act also allows the parties in such actions to appeal directly to the United States Supreme Court. See id. at 3–4. Under § 2284(b)(1) of the Act, a single judge may determine whether three judges are required to hear or determine the action. See Benisek v. Mack, 11 F. Supp. 3d 516, 519 (D. Md. 2014); 28 U.S.C. 2284(b)(1). That section further permits a single judge to “conduct all proceedings except the trial and enter all orders permitted by the rules of civil procedure.” See Benisek, 11 F. Supp. 3d at 519; 28 U.S.C. 2284(b)(3). Today, the three-judge procedure applies when a party challenges the constitutionality of congressional redistricting or reapportionment. See Brief for Petitioners at 8–9.
In 2011, Maryland enacted a redistricting plan following the decennial census. See Benisek, 11 F. Supp. 3d at 518. The plan created several districts composed of two non-contiguous segments connected by “narrow orifices or ribbons.” See id. Additionally, in each of these districts, one segment had a far greater population than the other and was “socioeconomically, demographically, and politically inconsistent with the other segment.” See id. Four of the eight new districts in Maryland’s plan demonstrated irregularly shaped boundaries. See id.
Petitioners Stephen M. Shapiro, O. John Benisek, and Maria Pycha (collectively “Shapiro”) are Maryland residents. See Benisek., 11 F. Supp. at 518. In November 2013, Shapiro filed suit alleging that Maryland’s new redistricting plan violates the principles of American democracy by dividing voters on the basis of partisan affiliation. See id. Shapiro contends that Maryland violated the First Amendment right to freedom of political association as well as the Constitution’s guarantee to Congressional representation. See id. Shapiro filed suit against then-chair of the State Board of Elections, Bobbie S. Mack, and its Administrator, Linda Lamone, in their official capacities. See id. Shapiro requested that a three-judge panel hear the case. See Brief for Petitioners at 12.
Sitting with a single judge, the United States District Court of Maryland dismissed the case for failure to state a claim and held that referral to a three-judge panel was not required for this decision. See Benisek, 11 F. Supp. at 526. In rejecting the three-judge panel, the court relied on Duckworth v. State Administration Board of Election Law, where the Fourth Circuit held that pleadings that do not state a claim are insubstantial and are properly dismissed without requiring the three-judge procedure. See id. at 520. Next, relying on Vieth v. Jubelirer, the court held that Shapiro’s claim that Maryland’s redistricting plan abridges representational and voting rights was non-judiciable as a political question best left for the state and federal legislatures to resolve. See id. at 523–26. Finally, the court reasoned that the redistricting did not prohibit Shapiro from participating in political debate, and therefore his allegations failed to meet a standard of substantially necessary to move forward. See id. at 526.
Shapiro appealed and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit summarily affirmed the decision per curium. See Brief for Petitioners at 20. On June 8, 2015, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari. While this action was pending, David J. McManus replaced Bobbie S. Mack as chair of the State Board of Elections and is substituted in this case as respondent alongside Lamone (collectively “McManus”). See id. at ii.
In this case, the Supreme Court will decide whether a single-judge district court may dismiss a claim, otherwise covered by the Three-Judges Court Act, on its merits. Shapiro argues that the Act imposes a jurisdictional requirement, therefore limiting a single judge from dismissing such claims for reasons other than lack of jurisdiction or insubstantiality. See Brief for Petitioners, Stephen M. Shapiro et al. at 19. Additionally, Shapiro argues that Duckworth incorrectly read the Act, and that such reading contravenes congressional intent. See id. at 29–30. On the other hand, McManus argues that the Act does not impose a jurisdictional requirement, thus allowing a single judge to dismiss such a claim on its merits. See Brief for Respondents, David McManus, Jr. et al. at 15–16. Additionally, McManus argues that Duckworth best exemplifies the Act’s congressional intent. See id. at 25.
DOES THE THREE-JUDGE COURT ACT IMPOSE A JURISDICTIONAL REQUIREMENT?
Shapiro contends that the Three-Judge Court Act requires convening a three-judge panel whenever a party files an action “challenging the constitutionality of the apportionment of congressional districts.” See Brief for Petitioners, Stephen M. Shapiro et al. at 17. Shapiro argues that the text of the statute permits a single judge to dismiss a claim otherwise applicable under the Three-Judge Court Act only for lack of jurisdiction or justiciability in the federal courts. See id. at 18–19. Shapiro contends that the Court has previously held that district courts lack jurisdiction for federal claims considered to be insubstantial. See id. at 19. Shapiro states that, according to Court precedent, an insubstantial claim is one that is frivolous, with no room for controversy or dispute. See id. at 20. Shapiro argues that if the single judge determines that the claim is not wholly insubstantial, then that judge must refer the claim to a three-judge panel. See id. at 21–22.
McManus, on the other hand, argues that the Act authorizes a single judge to dismiss a claim on its merits. See Brief for Respondents, David McManus, Jr. et al. at 15–16. McManus maintains that because the Act is a technical one, intended for a narrow reading, it should not apply when the reasons behind convening a three-judge court do not apply. See id. at 16. McManus contends that the text of the Act provides a procedural framework for the disposition of three-judge panels as opposed to a jurisdictional restriction on single judges. See id. at 17. McManus states that if the Act were a jurisdictional test, the parties would not have the ability to waive the three-judge panel, given that jurisdiction can “never be forfeited or waived.” See id. at 18. Additionally, McManus argues that once a party requests a three-judge court, the Act authorizes a single judge to decide whether a three-judge court is required. See id. at 19. According to McManus, only after a single judge has convened a three-judge court does the Act expressly forbid a single judge to dismiss a claim on its merits. See id. at 19.
THE DUCKWORTH PRECEDENT
Shapiro contends that the Act’s statutory structure proves that the holding in Duckworth v. State Admin. Bd. of Election Laws was erroneous. See Brief for Petitioners at 25. Accordingly, Shapiro states that Duckworth contravenes the Act’s structure in two ways. See id. First, Shapiro contends that Duckworth undercuts the division that Congress intended to create between the responsibilities of a single-judge and a three-judge court. See id. Shapiro argues that § 2284(b)(3) of the Act provides explicitly that a single judge may not “enter judgment on the merits.” See id. If a single judge were permitted to dismiss a claim for failing to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, Shapiro argues, then the dismissal on the merits would frustrate § 2284(b)(3)’s distribution of authority. See id. at 25–26. Second, Shapiro maintains that allowing a single judge to dismiss a claim on its merits would render the Act’s appellate review scheme illogical. See id. at 27. Shapiro maintains that if a single judge dismissed a claim on its merits and the injured party appealed to the court of appeals, the court of appeals would then have to decide the merits of the claim. See id. Shapiro argues that if the court of appeals were to find the claim meritorious, then the same court would render a decision on the merits of a claim over which, according to § 1253, it has no jurisdiction. See id.
McManus argues that, even if the Court rejects the Duckworth standard permitting single-judge courts to rule on reapportionment cases with no plausible claim for relief, the Court should still arrive at the same conclusion as the Duckworth court in holding that the plaintiffs’ claims are insubstantial. See Brief for Respondents at 41, 47. In Duckworth, the Fourth Circuit held that the congressional redistricting in that case did nothing to impact plaintiffs’ ability to engage in political debate and was therefore not a violation of the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights. See id. at 47 (quoting Duckworth v. State Admin. Bd. Of Election Laws, 213 F. Supp. 2d 543, 558 (2002). Here, McManus notes Shapiro previously conceded in the lower court that the redistricting plan did not prohibit participation in political parties or frustrate the structure and activities of such parties. See id. Moreover, McManus argues that Shapiro’s First Amendment claims cannot be separated from Shapiro’s amended claims, which Shapiro abandoned. See id. at 41–42, 45. Significantly, McManus claims, the Court treats “various constitutional theories as a single set” when a single element of a state’s reapportionment allegedly violates several constitutional provisions. See id. at 42. McManus argues that the complaint, viewed in its entirety, is barred because the Court has already considered and rejected similar complaints. See id. at 42–43.
STATUTORY PURPOSE AND ADMINISTRATIVE EFFECT
Shapiro maintains that Duckworth contradicts the statutory purpose of the Act. See Brief for Petitioners at 29. First, Shapiro contends that Congress meant for the Act to reduce the individual biases and predilections of a single judge in politically sensitive matters. See id. at 29–30. By convening three-judge courts, Shapiro argues that Congress intended to create a judicial mechanism insulated from local influences. See id. at 30. Shapiro argues that apportionment challenges are “highly sensitive matters” that a single judge should not be able to dismiss on her own. See id. at 31. Second, Shapiro maintains that Congress intended for the rapid resolution of apportionment claims under the Act by allowing a direct appeal to the Supreme Court. See id. at 31. However, Shapiro contends that a claim dismissed on its merits by a single judge would have to be appealed to a court of appeals as opposed to the Supreme Court and would add an additional layer of litigation. See id. at 32. Shapiro argues that a significant delay in the resolution of a claim will result, potentially rendering the reason behind the claim moot. See id. at 32–33. Moreover, Shapiro argues that Duckworth runs afoul of the Supreme Court’s preference for “clear jurisdictional tests” and administrative simplicity. See id. at 27–28. Shapiro maintains that the Act was meant to serve as a jurisdictional statute that defines the jurisdictional line between a single-judge and three-judge court. See id. at 28. Shapiro argues that a “complex jurisdictional test” would complicate claims and significantly extend their litigation time on jurisdictional matters, as opposed to the merits of the claims. See id. Shapiro affirms that by allowing a single judge to dismiss claims on their merits, Duckworth creates a “complex jurisdictional test.” See id.
McManus argues that Duckworth best exemplified Congress’ reasoning for creating the Three-Judge Court Act. See Brief for Respondents at 25. McManus states that Congress intended for the Act to protect states against the intrusion of individual federal judges on state sovereignty while promoting the public’s confidence in the federal courts. See id. at 26–27. McManus argues that the political nature of reapportionment cases required the convening of three-judge courts in order to stop lone federal judges from implementing their own districting plans over those of sovereign states. See id. at 30. McManus claims that allowing all reapportionment cases to be heard by three-judge courts regardless of their merits would contravene the statute’s purpose of reducing state disruption in applying its laws. See id. at 32. Moreover, McManus argues that few cases would be affected by the additional litigation time that Duckworth imposes, and the extended litigation “would be more than justified by the overall savings to judicial economy” from decreasing the number of three-judge courts. See id. at 34–35. McManus also claims that the additional litigation would be no different than the one created by applying a substantiality test because plaintiffs seeking a reversal of a wrongly dismissed complaint must go to the court of appeals regardless. See id. at 34.
The Supreme Court has the opportunity to decide the extent of a single-judge district court’s authority to determine cases that are otherwise covered by the Three-Judge Court Act. See Brief for Petitioners, Stephen M. Shapiro et al. at 1. Shapiro contends that a single-judge district court may never make determinations on the merits of reapportionment complaints and may only dismiss a claim for jurisdictional deficiencies. See id. at 17–21. McManus counters that a single judge may dismiss cases for failure to state a claim subject to the standards of Rule 12(b)(6). See Brief for Respondents, David J. McManus, Jr., et al. at 15. The Supreme Court’s resolution of this case will affect the breadth of claims that may be heard by a single-judge district court.
COMPETING CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS
Shapiro and supporting amici argue that the purpose of the Three-Judge Court Act was to protect citizens’ important representational and voting rights. See Brief for Petitioners at 9. For this reason, the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP (“NAACP”) argues, Congress sought to provide the basic structures of democracy with an extra safeguard. See Brief of Amicus Curiae Virginia State Conference of the NAACP, in Support of Petitioners at 7. Correspondingly, the NAACP expresses concern that allowing a single judge to decide reapportionment cases invites an unacceptably high risk of political bias and the possibility of discrimination. See id. at 11–12. Moreover, the NAACP fears that allowing a single judge to make decisions on the merits would reduce racial, economic, and political minorities’ ability to protect their constitutional rights. See id. at 12.
Conversely, McManus argues that the purpose of the Act was to protect the sovereignty of the states from overreaching federal judges. See Brief for Respondents at 27. McManus argues that Congress feared that federal judges would read their own theories into the duly enacted policies of the states. See id. at 1. Therefore, McManus alleges that allowing Shapiro’s challenge to move forward would interfere with the experimental policies of several states, and that this outcome offends the ideals of American federalism. See id. at 26–28. In fact, McManus contends that Congress chose to maintain the three-judge panel for reapportionment cases precisely because such challenges are so essential to a state’s ability to function independently. See id. Therefore, since granting a single judge the authority to dismiss meritless claims poses no risk to state sovereignty, McManus expresses concern that overturning the district court’s determination would do little in furthering the Act’s central constitutional protections. See id. at 14.
Shapiro and supporting amici argue that the Three-Judge Court Act was intended to provide expeditious handling of critically important questions. See Brief for Petitioners at 9; Brief of Amici Curiae Professors Joshua A. Douglas and Michael E. Solimine, Election Law Scholars (“Professors”), in Support of Petitioners at 13. However, Shapiro argues that the Fourth Circuit’s interpretation actually creates additional burdens for the federal courts because it incentives disputes about how many judges should hear a case. See Brief for Petitioners at 32. Shapiro and amici fear that these fights will unnecessarily delay decisions on the underlying case. See id. at 32–33; Brief of Amicus Curiae Judicial Watch, Inc. in Support of Petitioners at 4. Judicial Watch also notes that election schedules sometimes leave too little time for courts to grant relief for constitutional violations, and these situations would occur more frequently with delayed adjudication. See Brief of Judicial Watch Inc. at 4. Similarly, Professors Joshua Douglas and Michael Solimine contend that many historically important cases and novel legal concepts reached the Court due to the fact that a three-judge panel heard them. See Brief of Professors at 20–21.
Conversely, McManus argues that barring a single judge from screening for meritorious claims would increase the federal workload. See Brief for Respondents at 28–29. He asserts that subsequent amendments to the Act demonstrate a Congressional desire to reduce the explosion of constitutional cases that resulted from the Act. See id. at 4. McManus points out that Congress made a three-judge panel elective by one of the parties and significantly limited its applicability. See id.; 28 U.S.C. 2284(b)(a)-(b)(1). Moreover, McManus maintains that Congress intended to give single judges the authority to dismiss cases for failure to state a cause of action because this approach reduces the burden of convening three-judge panels for frivolous claims. See Brief for Respondents at 3. Accordingly, a single judge’s authority to refuse a request for a three-judge panel if “he determines that three judges are not required” is procedural rather than jurisdictional. See id. at 5; 28 U.S.C. 2284(b)(1). Therefore, McManus argues that the Fourth Circuit’s approach results in a more effective judiciary. See Brief for Respondents at 31.
The Supreme Court will decide the scope of authority given to a single judge in cases that are otherwise referable to a three-judge panel. See Brief for Petitioners, Stephen M. Shapiro et al. at 1. Shapiro argues that granting single-judge courts the ability to dismiss reapportionment claims on the merits contravenes the Three-Judge Court Act. See id. at 17. McManus counters that the Act’s text explicitly confers this power to single-judge courts, which comports with the statute’s purpose of decreasing the stress on federal courts. See Brief for Respondents at 17, 25. The Supreme Court’s ruling in this case will have significant implications on Americans’ ability to challenge the constitutionality of election laws. See Brief for Petitioners at 9.
The authors would like to thank Professor Kevin M. Clermont of Cornell Law School for offering his insight and expertise to the writing of this case preview.
- John Fritze, Supreme Court case based in Md. could have wide impact, The Baltimore Sun (Sept. 6, 2015).