Tag: Fourteenth Amendment

The Modern Voting Rights Act Is Unconstitutional

I’ve written previously about how the current Texas redistricting saga – a decennial battle in that and many states – shows how the Voting Rights Act in its moden incarnation both doesn’t work and conflicts with the Constitution.  The Supreme Court’s ruling last month telling a three-judge district court in San Antonio to go back to the map-drawing board did not begin to the address these deeper issues, which will surface again, perhaps as soon as this fall in a case out of Shelby County, Alabama.

Today I published an op-ed on the subject in the National Law Journal.  Here’s an excerpt:

Originally conceived as a check on states where discrimination was prevalent in the 1960s, Section 5 [of the VRA] requires certain jurisdictions – a bizarre list that includes some of the Old Confederacy, plus Alaska, Arizona and certain counties or townships in eight other states, including (only) three New York City boroughs – to get federal approval before changing any election laws. To obtain this preclearance, these jurisdictions may propose only changes that do not result in “retrogression,” a reduction in minority voters’ ability to elect their “preferred” candidates.

Section 5 was a valuable tool in the fight against systemic disenfranchisement, but it now facilitates the very discrimination it was designed to prevent. Indeed, the prohibition on retrogression effectively requires districting that assures that minority voters are the majority in some districts – an inherently race-conscious mandate. The law, most recently renewed in 2006 for another 25 years, is based on deeply flawed assumptions and outdated statistical triggers, and it flies in the face of the 15th Amendment’s requirement that all voters be treated equally.

Read the whole thing, as well as Cato’s brief in Perry v. Perez and Roger Clegg’s article in the Cato Supreme Court Review on which one section of our brief heavily relied.

Gay Marriage Still Has an Uphill Climb

The right answer to the same-sex marriage question is to remove government from the marriage business altogether.  That’s a legislative matter, however, and not something the courts should decree. Until then, because state and federal laws confer benefits based on marital status, the equal protection provisions of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments require that same-sex couples not be subject to discrimination in receipt of those benefits. But that issue was not addressed by the U.S. Court of Appeals in California—a state that permits gay unions and does not discriminate against such unions in conferring “marital” benefits. The specific issue the court decided was whether the label “marriage” could attach to heterosexual but not homosexual partnerships. Quite properly, the court ruled that it could not. That’s a narrow but important step in the right direction. But it does not settle the more significant question whether states may grant benefits to heterosexual couples while granting less or no benefits to homosexual couples.

In fact, there’s a negative aspect of the court’s ruling, which essentially declared Prop 8 unconstitutional because California went further than other states in allowing civil unions. The court held there’s no rational basis for allowing such unions but requiring that they carry a different label. That’s quite different from invoking the Equal Protection Clause to forbid a state from denying gays a right to the benefits of marriage. That issue didn’t arise because California grants such benefits to gays. Regrettably, other states may be dissuaded from following the California civil union model because their voters wish to limit the definition of “marriage” to exclude gays. In this instance, the better may become the enemy of the good.

Supreme Court Rejects Texas Redistricting Maps, Showing That Modern Voting Rights Act Is Outmoded and Unworkable

Two weeks ago I wrote about the emergency appeal of Texas’s new redistricting maps that reached the Supreme Court last month and was argued early last week.  The state argued that the interim maps a three-judge district court in San Antonio drew didn’t defer sufficiently to the maps passed by the Texas legislature (which could not go into direct effect because they hadn’t been approved by either the Justice Department or a three-judge D.C. district court, per the requirements of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act).  A group of challengers, meanwhile, claimed that Texas’s  maps discriminated against and diluted the voting strength of minorities in violation of the VRA’s Section 2.  Cato’s brief supported neither side but urged the Court to reconsider the constitutionality of the modern VRA altogether, not least because Sections 2 and 5 conflict with each other and with the Constitution.

Today, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the San Antonio court’s maps because that court may not have used the “appropriate standards” in drawing its interim maps.  In a tight 11-page opinion, the Court made clear that, regardless of the legal ambiguities and other challenges the lower court faced, it still had to use the Texas legislature’s maps as a starting point and only deviate from them on districts where the Section 2 plaintiffs had a “likelihood of success on the merits” of their claims or where there was a “reasonable probability” of failing to get Section 5 approval.  Here’s the nut of the Court’s decision:

To the extent the District Court exceeded its mission to draw interim maps that do not violate the Constitution or the Voting Rights Act, and substituted its own concept of “the collective public good” for the Texas Legislature’s determination of which policies serve “the interests of the citizens of Texas,” the court erred.

That legal ruling is almost certainly correct – and in any event provides much-needed guidance for future such difficult situations – but may not change the ultimate result all that much because the district court most erred in explaining how it did it what it did rather than in doing it.  It even deferred significantly to the Texas maps after saying that it owed them no deference!

Unfortunately, the perfect storm that landed this case in the Supreme Court’s lap – no Section 5 “preclearance,” potentially viable Section 2 challenges, the need to have maps finalized quickly for the timely administration of primaries, the undesirability of having courts draw maps and the lack of clear rules of doing so – is not unique.  Justice Thomas is thus onto something when he reiterated today, in his separate concurrence, his long-held position that Section 5 is unconstitutional. 

But the problem is bigger than that: the Voting Rights Act as a whole has served its purpose but is now outmoded and unworkable – and consequently unconstitutional.  Section 2 requires race-based districting, even as Section 5, along with the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, seem to prohibit it.  For its part, Section 5 arbitrarily prevents common national redistricting standards.   These tensions cannot but produce chaotic proceedings like those here, which are replicated every redistricting cycle.   This state of affairs only serves to frustrate state legislatures, the judicial branch, and the voting public.

Put simply, the VRA’s success has undermined its continuing viability; courts and legislatures struggle mightily and often fruitlessly to satisfy both the VRA’s race-based mandate and the Fifteenth Amendment’s equal treatment guarantee.  Section 5’s selective applicability precludes the establishment of nationwide districting standards, confounding lower courts and producing different, often contradictory, treatment of voting rights in different states – in large part because Sections 2 and 5 themselves conflict with each other.

These difficulties – constitutional, statutory, and practical – disadvantage candidates, voters, legislatures, and courts, and undermine the VRA’s great legacy of vindicating the voting rights of all citizens.  While Perry v Perez may not have been the right vehicle for doing so because of exigencies involved in election administration, the Court should reconsider the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act as presently conceived at the next available opportunity.

Supreme Court Should Use Texas Redistricting Case to Reconsider Voting Rights Act

The decennial redrawing of electoral districts consistently produces extensive litigation. The most notable cases this cycle come, as they often have, from Texas.

A number of activist groups challenged the Texas legislature’s maps for state house, state senate, and congressional districts, alleging racial discrimination under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act in a special three-judge federal district court in San Antonio. At the same time, Texas is seeking in another three-judge district court in D.C. the “preclearance” of its maps that it needs to implement them under the VRA’s Section 5.

Enacted in 1965 to combat pervasive discrimination against black voters in the South, the VRA has exceeded expectations in excising that shameful phenomenon. Its application now, however, stymies the orderly implementation of free and fair elections, particularly in jurisdictions subject not only to the general prohibition on race-based voter discrimination, but also the Section 5 preclearance requirement.

Originally conceived as a check on states where discrimination was prevalent in the 1960s, preclearance requires certain jurisdictions to obtain federal approval before changing any election laws. (The Section 5 list is bizarre: six of the eleven states of the Old Confederacy — and certain counties in three others — plus Alaska, Arizona, and some counties or townships in five other states as diverse as New Hampshire and South Dakota. Curiously, (only) three New York counties are covered, all boroughs in New York City. What is going on in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan that is not in Queens or Staten Island?) To obtain preclearance, proposed changes may not result in “retrogression,” a reduction in minority voters’ ability to elect their “preferred” candidates.

Section 5 was originally a valuable tool in the fight against systemic disenfranchisement, but now facilitates the very discrimination it was designed to prevent. Indeed, the prohibition on retrogression effectively requires districting that assures that minority voters are the majority in a set number of districts — an inherently race-conscious mandate. The law, most recently renewed in 2006 for another 25 years, is based on deeply flawed assumptions and outdated statistical triggers, and flies in the face of the Fifteenth Amendment’s requirement that all voters be treated equally.

In any event, because the D.C. court here had not yet ruled on preclearance, the San Antonio court felt obligated to draw “interim” maps for use pending final adjudication of both the Section 2 and 5 cases. Texas filed an emergency appeal with the Supreme Court, arguing that the lower court insufficiently deferred to the Texas legislature’s maps. Now on an expedited briefing and argument schedule, Cato filed an amicus brief supporting neither side and arguing that this case demonstrates all that is wrong with the VRA as it currently exists — highlighting the tension between the VRA and the Constitution and the practical difficulties that conflict engenders for election administration.

Put simply, the VRA’s success has undermined its continuing viability; courts and legislatures struggle mightily and often fruitlessly to satisfy both the VRA’s race-based mandate and the Fifteenth Amendment’s equal treatment guarantee. We also point out that Section 5’s selective applicability precludes the establishment of nationwide districting standards, confounding lower courts and producing different, often contradictory, treatment of voting rights in different states — in large part because Sections 2 and 5 themselves conflict with each other. We note that regardless of the outcome of this litigation, it is unlikely that Texas will have fully legal electoral maps in time to administer the 2012 elections in a fair and efficient manner.

These difficulties — constitutional, statutory, and practical — disadvantage candidates, voters, legislatures, and courts, and undermine the VRA’s great legacy of vindicating the voting rights of all citizens. The Court should thus schedule this case for broader reargument on the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act as presently conceived.

The Court will hear argument in Perry v. Perez on January 9.  See SCOTUSblog’s coverage for more on the case.

Rent Control Violates Property Rights and Due Process

This blogpost was coauthored by Cato legal associate Trevor Burrus, who also worked on the brief discussed below.

Rent control is literally a textbook example of bad economic policy. Economics textbooks often use it as an example of how price ceilings create shortages, poor quality goods, and under-the-table dealings. A 1992 survey revealed that 93 percent of economists believe that rent control laws reduce both the quality and quantity of housing.

As expected, therefore, New York City’s Rent Stabilization Law—the most (in)famous in the country—has led to precisely these effects: housing is scarce, apartment buildings are dilapidated because owners can’t charge enough to fix them, and housing costs have only increased (in part because costs are transferred to non-rent mechanisms such as “non-refundable deposits”). Yet the RSL persists, benefiting those grandfathered individuals who rent at lower rates but hurting the city as a whole.

Harmon v. Kimmel challenges New York’s law on the grounds that it is an arbitrary and unsupportable regulation amounting to an uncompensated taking that violates the Fifth Amendment.

Jim Harmon’s family owns and lives in a five-story brownstone in the Central Park West Historical District. The Harmons inherited the building—and along with it three rent-controlled tenants. Those tenants have occupied apartments in the building for a combined total of 91 years at a rate 59 percent below market. In their lawsuit, however, the Harmons face many unfriendly precedents that have given states free reign to regulate property, to the point that it is occupied on an essentially permanent basis while surviving Fifth Amendment scrutiny.

One way to challenge some of these laws is to argue they are so arbitrary and poorly justified that they violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. Because this is an especially difficult type of challenge to bring, Cato joined the Pacific Legal Foundation and the Small Property Owners of San Francisco Institute on a brief supporting the Harmons’ request that the Supreme Court review lower-court rulings against them. Although the Court has ruled that the Takings Clause does not permit challenges based on claims that the alleged taking fails to “substantially advance legitimate state interests,” the Due Process Clause is an independent textual provision.

We thus clarify the relationship between property rights and due process, arguing that a law which advances no legitimate governmental purpose can be challenged under the Due Process Clause. To hold otherwise would be to deny property owners any meaningful avenue for defending their property from onerous and irrational regulations.

Sneaking Race-Based Government Through the Tropical Back Door

Those of you who follow this blog know of the special place in my heart for Hawaiian constitutional issues.  Cato has even filed several Hawaii-related amicus briefs; here’s my post about the latest one, last month.  This is in part because thinking about the Constitution and individual liberty is even more fun in the context of palm trees, trade winds, and tiki bars, but more than that, developments in Hawaii tend to get overlooked or dismissed as parochial and “not really” relevant to the American project.

Unfortunately, that sort of benign neglect plays into the hands of those who want to wreak all sorts of havoc with our constitutional order.  And once those who don’t care about limited government, individual liberty, and equality under the law gain a toehold anywhere, Honolulu as much as Hartford, that creates a dangerous precedent – a political and jurisprudential tsunami, if you will, that threatens to swamp the mainland.

Such is the case with the infamous Akaka Bill (which I most recently covered in a blogpost that links to my previous work on the subject).  This bill, introduced in every Congress since 2000, would create a race-based governing entity that would negotiate with the federal and state governments over all sorts of issues – effectively carving out a system of racial spoils. 

Now, Hawaii’s senators, Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye, have long said that their pursuit of this legislation would always be above-board and transparent… until a couple of weeks ago when Inouye, as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, had a sentence inserted into the massive Interior Department funding bill allowing the federal government to recognize Native Hawaiians in the same way that American Indians and Native Alaskans are recognized (but without immediate federal benefits).  This, combined with a state resolution labeling the “Native Hawaiian people” as the only indigenous Hawaiians, is part of a piecemeal strategy to get the Akaka Bill in through the backdoor.

For more coverage of these developments, see this report, as well as these two articles ($).  For Hawaii’s fuzzy relationship with the Voting Rights Act, see this article.  For reasons on why this is all not just sneaky but a terrible idea – and unconstitutional – again, see my previous writings

At base, Hawaiians have a very different history and political sociology from the tribes that were accommodated in our (dubious and counterproductive) Indian law, which itself is a unique compromise with pre-constitutional reality.  It would be a shame to destroy that beautiful state’s spirit of aloha (welcome).

The Longhorn Mismatch: Too Much Racial Preference, Too Little Success

Last week the Supreme Court asked the University of Texas to respond to a cert petition raising an issue that in any non-Obamacare year would be the most explosive part of the Court’s docket: racial preferences in higher education.  (UT had for some inexplicable reason failed even to file a waiver, which is customary in cases where the respondent feels no need to file an actual brief.)

The case was brought by Abigail Fisher, a white Texan denied admission to UT-Austin even though her academic credentials exceeded those of admitted minority students.  The district court granted summary judgment to the university and the Fifth Circuit panel affirmed because a divided Supreme Court in the 2003 case of Grutter v. Bollinger (the University of Michigan case) found narrowly tailored racial preferences to be constitutionally justified for the sake of diversity.  Judge Emilio Garza wrote an electrifying concurrence – starting at page 58 here – agreeing that the ruling was correct under Grutter but that Grutter itself, and the regime of “soft” racial preferences (i.e., not quotas) it created, is incompatible with the Equal Protection Clause. 

The Fifth Circuit then denied en banc rehearing by a vote of 7-9, over a sharp dissent by Chief Judge Edith Jones.  (Full disclosure: The judge I clerked for lo those years ago, E. Grady Jolly, joined Chief Judge Jones’s dissent.)

Fisher’s cert petition objects to the wide discretion the Fifth Circuit would grant UT in administrating its racially preferential admissions paradigm, arguing that affording deference to the university extends Grutter and cannot be consistent with the “strict scrutiny” Grutter requires. Indeed, rather than working to phase out public university race preferences consistent with the expectations the Court articulated in Grutter – Justice O’Connor famously wrote that the diversity rationale would only suffice for about 25 years – the Fifth Circuit provides a veritable roadmap for discriminatory state action.

Now, it would be ideal if all nine justices were courageous enough to uphold constitutional protections for all citizens by refusing to legitimize racially discriminatory state action, regardless of the good-faith motives or other political atmospherics surrounding that action. Progressive legal theory being what it is, however, such a result, where people are judged on the content of their character/qualifications rather than the color of their skin, is unfortunately still a dream. There is, however, an argument that might sway even those members of the Court who support affirmative action as a policy matter: race preferences hurt those they are intended to help.

As highlighted in Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor’s amicus brief, a growing body of research suggests that when the capabilities of a student’s peers exceed their own, the student performs worse than when surrounded by peers with objectively similar capacities. Sander (a UCLA economist and law professor) and Taylor (a lawyer and journalist who has long covered civil rights issues) utilize this “mismatch theory” to discredit the assumption underlying race preference programs – that they benefit minorities – and demonstrate that the opposite is true. They further point out that racial preferences have failed to have their intended effects; namely, preventing racial balancing, fostering diversity, and making universities more attractive to minorities.

Three U.S. Civil Rights Commissioners also filed an amicus brief presenting evidence that racial preferences produce the opposite of their intended effect; they discourage rather than facilitate the entry of minorities into prestigious careers by incentivizing elite public universities to admit students they would not admit if admissions were race-blind. They argue that racial preferences place students in environments that do not optimize to their learning. Citing robust statistics, they conclude that this effect actually discourages minorities from entering science and engineering careers and becoming college professors, and decreases the number of minority students accepted to law schools who actually earn JDs and pass the bar exam.

The well-intentioned advocates of race-conscious public university admissions got it wrong under the Constitution. These briefs further illustrate the detriment everyone in society suffers when state action based on race rather than merit dictates the paths of young Americans.

Under the Court’s request for a response, the university has until the end of the month to file, unless it asks for and is granted an extension.  If the university’s response arrives by January, the case – if the Supreme Court takes it – should be on schedule for argument and decision this term.  For more on Fisher v. University of Texas, see the case’s SCOTUSblog page.

Thanks to Cato legal associate (and UT alumna) Anna Mackin for help with this blogpost.