One Person, One Vote, Three Judges?

The Court decides many procedural cases, further clarifying and defining the processes of the judicial system, and while nearly all are often bland and idiosyncratic, sometimes there comes along a case that raises a question rooted in both minutia and interesting legal philosophy. One such case is this term’s Shapiro v. McManus.

To understand Shapiro, it’s necessary to understand a bit of the federal courts system. There are three layers of federal courts: District Courts (trial courts), Courts of Appeals, and the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has nine judges, the Courts of Appeals have many more, but District Courts have one judge. In certain types of cases, the case can be heard by a three-judge panel, and the chief judge of the Circuit in which the court is located would supply two other judges to the panel, on top of the original single judge. In an even smaller number of cases, the single judge can reject the three-judge panel request and maintain the one-judge panel. In Shapiro v. McManus, this exact thing happened, and the question of the case is whether the judge was able to reject that request.

Truthfully, what the original case was about is much more interesting. Stephen Shapiro, a resident of Maryland, challenged the constitutionality of his state’s redistricting scheme after the 2010 census. He believed that some of the districts were gerrymandered and unconstitutionally violated his right to political association. That challenge is more salient, relevant, and interesting to people, but that’s not the actual issue at hand, unfortunately. The question the Supreme Court specifically agreed to answer was whether the judge could deny the three-judge panel for this specific case.

Cases surrounding the constitutionality of apportionment of congressional districts are one of those few types of cases that compel the court to instate a three-judge panel, which means in this case the burden is on the judge to prove he could reinstate the one-judge panel. The district court ruled against Shapiro on the merits of the case, and, on appeal, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Shapiro as well. Shapiro appealed again, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear his case.

Argued on November 4, the case was decided only a little more than a month later, on December 8. It was a unanimous 9-0 decision, by Justice Scalia, ruling in favor of Shapiro. Their holding: in cases in which the plaintiffs challenge the constitutionality of apportionment of congressional districts, federal district courts must refer the case to a three-judge panel. They decided that the judge can only dismiss the case to a one-judge panel if the case is absolutely frivolous. In Shapiro, the judge dismissed the request as frivolous but that didn’t meet the Supreme Court’s standard of “absolutely frivolous,” evidently.

Unfortunately for Shapiro, the case history of challenging gerrymandering doesn’t hold much hope for the future. Courts have repeatedly found that gerrymandering by political ideology is constitutionally allowed. In fact, Shapiro may very well retry his case before the three-judge panel, and keep appealing to the Supreme Court, only to be denied on the merits of the case. But the result of Shapiro is that challengers to the system may now have a new way to challenge the decisions. Plus, a fun fact about the judicial system: decisions by three-judge panels can be immediately appealed to the Supreme Court, bypassing the Court of Appeals, which could accelerate these cases and reduce the chance a case is rejected by the Court of Appeals and never heard by the Supreme Court.

I’m happy with this decision – why not have three judges? It can only provide a balance in issues such as voting rights, which are so politically charged.


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