Election law continues to be an important topic in national news. Indeed, every year the U.S. Supreme Court decides a few election law cases. This year is no exception. This term, the Supreme Court will decide Shapiro v. McManus and Evenwel v. Abbott. This post will discuss Shapiro. Shapiro v. McManus, which the Court is hearing arguments in tomorrow, concerns a group of Maryland citizens who sued the Chair of the Maryland State Board of Elections and its Administrator, arguing that a 2011 redistricting plan was, in fact, a partisan gerrymander. A partisan gerrymander occurs when the line drawers manipulate an electoral district’s boundaries to favor a certain political party—typically the majority party in power who is drawing the lines. After the case was filed, the defendants moved to dismiss the lawsuit under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a defense which asserts that the plaintiff failed to state a valid legal claim. The case, which was reviewed by one district judge, was dismissed, with the judge holding that the complaint did not sufficiently assert the presence of misconduct in the line-drawing process. The court analyzed the complaint under a standard set forth in two recent Supreme Court cases, Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly and Ashcroft v. Iqbal which in essence require a claim to be “plausible” to survive this preliminary stage of litigation The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s ruling.
Yet the resolution of this case involves a key procedural question for redistricting disputes: who is actually supposed to decide the case? The Three Judge Court Act, passed by Congress in 1910, requires that cases concerning the apportionment of congressional districts or any statewide legislative body be reviewed by a panel of three judges (two district court judges and one appellate judge, sitting together as a panel), unless the claims are “unsubstantial.” But here, the single district judge did not send the case to a three-judge court because it found the claims to lack merit.
In an appeal of that ruling, the Court will determine if one U.S. District Court judge may decide that a claim governed by the Three-Judge Court Act does not have to be referred to a panel of three district judges. Thus, the Shapiro case presents two issues: first, whether one judge may review the sufficiency of a claim governed by the Three-Judge Court Act before referring that claim to a panel of three judges, and second, what pleading standards must be applied when reviewing said claims.