The stakes were high at oral argument for Shapiro v. McManus on November 4, 2015. Justice Breyer said Shapiro and his co-plaintiffs “want[ed] to raise about as important a question as you can imagine . . . And if they [were] right, that would affect congressional districts and legislative districts throughout the nation.” It was clear that the justices struggled with the serious implications that their decision could have for future redistricting and partisan gerrymandering cases. In Shapiro v. McManus, a group of Maryland citizens brought suit challenging the state’s contorted congressional districts, drawn by Democrats in 2011. Petitioners claimed that the political map violated Republicans’ First Amendment rights “by placing them in districts where they were the minority, therefore marginalizing them based on their political views.”
Although the petitioners requested a three-judge panel to rule on the case pursuant the Three-Judge Court Act, 28 U.S.C §2284, a single-judge district court dismissed the case for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). As a result, the question before the justices was whether a single district court judge could dismiss the case under Rule 12(b)(6), or whether a three-judge panel had to review the case. Because appeals of cases heard by three-judge panels are mandatorily reviewable by the Supreme Court, the stakes are high for the petitioners, as well as the Justices. (For more background about the Three-Judge Act and the issue in the case, see my previous post).
Although oral argument was unusually sleepy, the questions the justices raised reflected the two conflicting interests at issue in the case. On the one hand, the justices clearly valued Congress’ recognition that election law claims are so important that the procedures must be expedited and therefore heard by a three-judge panel. Yet, on the other hand, a ruling in favor of petitioners could draw the Court dangerously close (or even into) the “political thicket,” forcing them to hear partisan gerrymandering cases. Partisan gerrymandering claims have been off the table for Supreme Court review since the ruling in Vieth v. Jubelirer, when the Court arguably decided that such claims were not justiciable because of their political nature. However, as some of the justices aptly recognize, a ruling in petitioners’ favor could force more cases to be heard by three-judge panels with greater access to Supreme Court review through direct appeal. While the Court does not have to hear these cases, rejecting a case means the lower court did get it right, putting more pressure on the Justices to actually hear the case.