American politics could soon be the victim of “zombie rulings” if the activists seeking to scrap state electoral maps have their way. Zombie rulings are court orders that are “dead” wrong but continue to survive for political reasons, haunting the democratic process. Unless the U.S. Supreme Court is careful in handling the issue of standing in Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill, the future of fair elections will be at risk.
In a pair of cases involving the redistricting process in North Carolina and Maryland (Rucho and Lamone), the Supreme Court seems poised to affirm that state legislatures have broad latitude when drawing legislative districts. This is as it should be. Legislatures have relied on many factors, including politics, in every redistricting map since the Constitution was adopted. Taking politics out of redistricting is like trying to unscramble an egg; the Constitution has never required that impossible undertaking.
Ignoring where the Supreme Court is headed, lower courts recently struck down redistricting maps in Michigan and Ohio as so-called “partisan gerrymanders.” If the Supreme Court holds in Rucho and Lamone that the Constitution does not prohibit politics in the political system, the Michigan and Ohio rulings should be easy reversals on appeal.
Not so fast.
The playbook, on full display in Bethune-Hill, is for activists to identify a friendly state attorney general, then actively forum shop for a sympathetic lower court predisposed to strike down properly enacted legislative maps and replace them with equally partisan maps. The state attorney general then refuses to defend the redistricting law they have sworn to uphold. When the legislature seeks to intervene, the attorney general objects, arguing that the attorney general’s client—the legislature—has no standing to participate in the lawsuit. The result is a zombie ruling that survives despite being in direct conflict with a Supreme Court decision.
Whatever their political affiliation, no attorney should shirk their duty to represent a client, least of all a state attorney general who has taken an oath to uphold and defend state law. Yet partisan attorneys general will be incentivized to play games unless the Supreme Court allows someone to appeal when state attorneys general refuse to do their jobs. State legislatures have as much interest as anyone when it comes to defending their own legislative maps and their members’ political futures. They will zealously defend their laws on appeal.
Slaying zombie redistricting rulings shouldn’t be a partisan issue. The 2020 election is already guaranteed to be contentious. (Aren’t they all?) Allowing activist judges and attorneys general to thwart Supreme Court precedent would only throw gasoline on that fire. The solution is simple: legislatures and legislators must have standing to appeal as intervenors whenever a case involves the structure or composition of the legislature itself. Legislators already have standing as plaintiffs in such cases; it is unfair and illogical if similarly situated legislators are barred from defending the same laws.
The distinctiveness of legislators’ interest in the structure of elections is sufficient to distinguish intervention in redistricting cases from intervention in cases involving other undefended statutes (though such interventions should always be allowed when a state attorney general declines to do her job). This type of intervention has been allowed in these types of cases for decades. And it is the only way we can avert the coming electoral zombie apocalypse.
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John Bursch is a former Michigan Solicitor General and owner of Bursch Law PLLC