On June 17, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion in Arizona v Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, 12-71. The most important consequence of this decision is that the Elections Clause in Article One of the U.S. Constitution has been strengthened. The “Elections Clause” only relates to Congressional elections. It says, “Section 4. The Times, Places, and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.”
Justice Scalia, writing for the 7-2 majority, said that while it is true that in most disputes between federal and state authority, there must be a careful balancing of federal power to allow as much state power as possible, this is not true for the Elections Clause. Page eleven of his decision says, “There is good reason for treating Election Clause legislation differently. The assumption that Congress is reluctant to pre-empt does not hold when Congress acts under that constitutional provision, which empowers Congress to ‘make or alter’ state election regulations…the federalism concerns underlying the presumption in the Supremacy Clause context are somewhat weaker here. Unlike the States’ ‘historic police powers’, the States’ role in regulating congressional elections – while weighty and worthy of respect – has always existed subject to the express qualification that it ‘terminates according to federal law.’”
This finding will be useful in any current and future lawsuits over discriminatory ballot access laws involving congressional elections. The U.S. Supreme Court already ruled in Cook v Gralike, 531 U.S. 510 (2001), that the Elections Clause was intended by the founding fathers to prevent the states from “favoring or disfavoring a class of candidates.” Cook v Gralike struck down Missouri election laws that required printing disparaging ballot labels on the ballot for candidates who did not favor a U.S. Constitutional amendment for term limits. The Arizona decision will help to win the current California lawsuit, Chamness v Bowen, challenging unequal ballot access labels for candidates for Congress. The Arizona decision helps because it gives new force and precedential power to Cook v Gralike, a decision that has often been overlooked even though it was unanimous.