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Friday, June 12, 2015

Three-judge district courts in constitutional reform litigation

At Balkinization, David Gans discusses the use of three-judge district courts in conservative-leaning impact litigation challenging campaign-finance reform and voting rights rules. Gans argues it reflects "a long term conservative strategy for getting blockbuster campaign finance and voting rights cases to the Supreme Court. It is a strategy that has paid off time and again as John Roberts and his conservative colleagues have made it easier for corporations and the wealthy to spend unlimited sums of money on elections, and harder for Americans to vote in them."

I do not buy the argument that the three-judge district court procedure is in any way relevant or to blame for the doctrinal trends Gans is decrying. First, as Gans notes, the most significant recent case--Shelby County--did not come from a three-judge court, but SCOTUS took the case anyway and a narrow majority gutted the Voting Rights Act. Second, and more importantly, the three-judge district court does not benefit conservatives or liberals as much as it benefits whoever happens to be bringing the legal challenges. As Gans himself acknowledges, three-judge district courts were a central feature in litigation challenging Jim Crow and other discriminatory policies during the Civil Rights Era, with the NAACP and other litigators designing legal strategy specifically to get into a three-judge court; this  enabled plaintiffs to avoid hostile individual district judges in favor of a broader panel and to get cases to SCOTUS more quickly. But that current challenges are being brought by conservatives and creating constitutional doctrine that Gans obviously dislikes does not reflect anything about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of the three-judge process. If we accept constitutional impact litigation as a legitimate use of the courts, it cannot matter who is bringing the challenge or the positions they are urging; the complaint can only be about the doctrine, not the process that got us there.

For the best history of the three-judge process, including its role during the Civil Rights Era and its restriction in the '70s (based on the perception that they no longer were necessary), see Michael Solimine's 2008 article.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 12, 2015 at 12:01 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman | Permalink

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