Wednesday, October 12, 2016
Your Honor, and May It Please Mitch McConnell
The race is tight for control of the Senate. According to the statisticians at 538, six states are experiencing (to use the technical term) “super close” elections, and those same races very well may determine which party exercises the exceedingly important powers wielded by this body of government. If the vote totals on Election Day are tight enough to invite disputes over the true winner of a Senate race, the question becomes: who should adjudicate those contests? If you thought to yourself “Mitch McConnell, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Ted Cruz, and their colleagues in the Senate; they should do it,” then you are in good company: the Founders agree with you.
As Article I, Section 5 of the United States Constitution reads, “[e]ach House shall be the judge of the elections, returns and qualifications of its own members.” What this means is that the Senators are charged with judging election contests over disputed Senate seats, while the Representatives are charged with judging election contests over disputed House seats. And judge they do: in this context, each House examines witnesses, manages discovery, and inspects ballots, among other tasks, all pursuant to a set of procedures (informal in the case of the Senate, and set by statute for the House). At the conclusion of the proceedings, each House publishes, through a committee, something that looks much like a judicial opinion. This report recommends a particular resolution of the claims, and if the full House agrees with that recommendation, it passes a resolution so ordering. As I explain in Judging Congressional Elections, the Houses of Congress already have resolved hundreds of contested elections in this fashion.
The arrangement may seem strange, but it has a long historical pedigree, and nearly every state has adopted a similar approach (that is, nearly every state also has vested power to judge state legislative elections in the legislative body itself). Still, a host of difficult questions remains. Among them is whether—and how—courts may also adjudicate these same disputes. Let’s take Pennsylvania, where the race between challenger Katie McGinty and incumbent Pat Toomey appears exceedingly close. Can the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania weigh in if either candidate disputes the results on Election Day? Or what about in Nevada, where the candidates are locked in a tight race over Harry Reid’s seat—can the state courts offer guidance if November 8 produces no clear winner? The answers largely depend on constitutional questions surrounding Article I, Section 5, and the resolution of those questions is, to put it lightly, unsettled.
As I explain in my article, which is forthcoming in the Georgia Law Review, a combination of factors has produced an interpretative vacuum in response to the Article I, Section 5 mandate. Although we have authorities that normally are able to clarify questions of federal law—including federal court decisions and congressional legislation—such authorities are almost entirely absent in this area. The result is a chaotic set of ad hoc, state-based interpretations of the mandate that vary drastically by jurisdiction. As an example, take the hypotheticals above. The Pennsylvania courts likely could adjudicate a dispute between McGinty and Toomey. In Nevada, however, the state courts almost certainly could not adjudicate a dispute between Joe Heck and Catherine Cortez Masto. The legal reasoning behind each conclusion is complicated (and addressed at length in my article), but the upshot is simple. Due to deep uncertainty surrounding the law of Article I, Section 5, states like Nevada and Pennsylvania have reached different conclusions about its meaning, and those competing interpretations are what govern in the respective jurisdictions.
This uncertainty matters for many reasons. At the outset, even the appearance of manipulation of the rules can undermine an election’s legitimacy, and nothing triggers the appearance (and perhaps, at times, the reality) of manipulation quite like legal uncertainty. The uncertainty also matters because it has resulted in suboptimal forms of procedure governing contested elections. This is particularly problematic in states that have concluded that Article I, Section 5 flatly prohibits judicial proceedings of any sort. In these jurisdictions, it’s the Senate (or House), or bust.
This area of the law is one of the most complicated I’ve encountered, and there remains a lot to unpack. Ultimately, however, I think Congress owes it to the electorate to take the first step toward reform by clarifying its own position on the principal set of questions: that is, whether, and in what circumstances, courts may hear these disputes. Each House has the power to make these procedural decisions precisely because it is the “judge” of its own elections—or, at least, that’s my conclusion regarding how best to understand the Article I, Section 5 mandate. In any event, hopefully more eyes will turn toward this underanalyzed provision of the Constitution. It’s interesting; it’s important; and, like so much in election law, it’s best analyzed and addressed before a close election turns each point of uncertainty into a partisan battle.