Constitution Daily

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Is one of the Pennsylvania voting cases doomed?

March 12, 2018 by Lyle Denniston


Even as the Supreme Court takes more time than expected to decide its part in the constitutional controversy over how voting is to be done this year for the 18 House of Representatives members from Pennsylvania, a federal trial court in Harrisburg, PA, is pondering a complex question of states’ rights that could end the case there without a decision on who wins.

The difficulty for the three judges sitting in the state’s capital city arises from the reality that, whenever a lawsuit is started in a federal court, that court has to have the authority to decide it, and there is significant controversy over whether the Harrisburg court has that authority.  The controversy is keyed to the most basic understandings about the nature of the Constitution’s division of powers between state and federal courts.

For decades, the general understanding has been that only the Supreme Court has the authority to review a state court ruling, and then only when the state court has issued a ruling that involves the federal Constitution.  That is a strong gesture toward federalism – respect for states’ rights in limiting national government power.

That arrangement, of course, is one of the reasons that state Republican leaders in Pennsylvania have twice asked the Supreme Court to get involved in the controversy this year on where election district lines are drawn for House of Representatives candidates.  The map defining those lines for this year was drawn up by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and the GOP leaders are seeking to appeal that decision.  In the meantime, they have asked the Justices to stop state officials from using the court-drawn map for House elections in May and November.

But some of the GOP leaders also have now pursued a case in the federal court in Harrisburg. After two GOP legislative leaders lost the case in the state Supreme Court, did the federal Constitution allow other GOP legislative figures and a group of GOP members of the House to go a few blocks away to the federal courthouse and start a new lawsuit there, claiming that the federal Constitution has been violated by the state court?

The answer, in part, depends upon whether the court concludes that the GOP figures were closely enough linked to each other to be considered partners in the two federal cases.  It also depends, in part, upon whether the court decides that the claims being made in the federal case were the same as had been put forth and decided in the state case.

Both sides in the federal case have energetically debated both of those points. The GOP leaders insist the two cases have independent parties and separate legal issues, but the state officials and the Democratic voters who are defending the state court’s action say the two cases are mirrors of each other, both as to the shared interests and common legal issues.

Of course, observers outside the two sides in the case have noted how important this entire controversy is to the two major political parties, with Republicans clearly at an advantage this year if the state court’s map is struck down and elections go forward under a 2011 map that has meant victory for GOP candidates on 13 out of the 18 House seats, in three different elections, and with Democrats likely at an advantage if the state court’s map is used, probably allowing Democratic candidates to pick up at least three seats this year.

Those political assessments, though, are not legitimate issues for the judges in Harrisburg to consider, because they don’t bear directly on whether there is a live controversy on the constitutional claims at issue.

Once the judges have made up their minds about possible parallels in the two cases, they would then confront a whole series of potential limitations on their authority to decide who is to win the federal case.

One of those is the basic principle that federal courts below the Supreme Court have no power to review a state court’s decision.  That principle goes by the label of the “Rooker-Feldman doctrine,” which gets its name from a 1923 Supreme Court decision involving a family named Rooker and a Supreme Court decision 60 years later in a case involving a man named Feldman.  In both cases, the Justices stopped a later federal court case that appeared to be an attempt to challenge a state court case by the loser in the state case.

That principle has seldom been used by the Supreme Court, and its scope seems to have been pared back somewhat by more recent decisions in cases involving what appeared to have been parallel claims.

But the controversy over the federal court’s power goes further, with variations on the dispute over parallel parties and parallel issues based on other Supreme Court rulings, and a core dispute over whether those who sued in federal court had any legal right even to file that case.  That point focused on the concept of “standing” – that is, did those who filed the federal case suffer any legal harm from the state court ruling that could be remedied by the federal court if it ruled in their favor?

The “standing” issue is rooted in the basic command of the federal Constitution’s Article III that the federal courts can only decide “cases or controversies” that are real and not imaginary or speculative.  Without proof of a legal injury and proof that a victory will remedy that, an individual simply has no right to be in federal court.

The Supreme Court has long been unwilling to let individual members of a state legislature or a member of Congress sue in federal court, when they don’t speak in the lawsuit for the entire body in which they serve.  In the Pennsylvania case in federal court, there is a question of whether the GOP legislators or GOP staff members are attempting to sue on behalf of the whole legislature.  And there is a question in the case about whether the GOP House members have any claim to continue representing the same constituents that they represented under the plan that so strongly favored Republican candidates.

If the federal court successfully navigates all of those potential hurdles to a ruling, the questions it then would face would be whether the lawmakers and staff aides have proved that the state Supreme Court did violate the federal Constitution by crafting its own congressional districting map and by putting it into effect without giving the state legislature the time its leaders have said they would need to devise a new map of through the normal legislative process.

That is the same constitutional question that lies behind what the Supreme Court is now pondering, as it weighs the state GOP legislative leaders’ plea to block the use this year of the state court’s map.

There is a states’ rights question at the heart of the Supreme Court case, too, but it is nowhere nearly as complex as the one before the federal trial court.  For the Justices, the simple question is this: does the fact that the state court declared that it based its ruling only on its state constitution even raise an issue under the federal Constitution?  If not, the Justices presumably would not stand in the way of the state court’s enforcement of its decision by drawing up its own congressional election boundaries.

They need not wait for the federal court in Harrisburg to provide their answer.

Because the congressional elections process is already underway in Pennsylvania, with the primary election set for May 15, the two courts are probably feeling some pressure to act soon, so that everyone involved knows where those 18 districts’ lines are, and who will be represented when winners emerge.

Legendary journalist Lyle Denniston has written for us as a contributor since June 2011 and has covered the Supreme Court since 1958. His work also appears on


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