The Democracy Canon
57 Pages Posted: 20 Feb 2009 Last revised: 24 Jul 2013
Date Written: February 16, 2009
Beginning in the 19th century and through the 2008 presidential elections, American state courts have consistently applied a rule of thumb, which I term the "Democracy Canon," to interpret certain state election statutes. According to one early formulation, "[a]ll statutes tending to limit the citizen in the exercise of [the right of suffrage] should be liberally construed in his favor." Despite its pedigree, the canon thus far has been ignored by Legislation and Election Law scholars and appears to have no independent vitality in federal courts. Moreover, the canon has played an unrecognized role in some of the most contentious election law cases of modern times, including Bush v. Gore.
Part I briefly traces the history and longstanding use of the Democracy Canon in American courts. Part II defends the Democracy Canon. It argues that the canon serves two important purposes. First, as with some other substantive canons, the Democracy Canon can help protect an underenforced constitutional norm. In this case, the canon protects constitutional equal protection rights in voting, rights which courts for various reasons have declined to protect directly through constitutional litigation. Second, the Democracy Canon is a preference-eliciting mechanism. As a clear statement rule, the canon requires the Legislature to take affirmative steps to express its intent to limit voter enfranchisement only when justified by other important interests.
Part III explores the politicization issue arising from use of the Democracy Canon through a closer examination of the New Jersey Supreme Court's controversial opinion in New Jersey Democratic Party v. Samson, allowing Democrats to replace a U.S. Senate candidate's name on the ballot close to election time. Part III uses Samson to illustrate that the use of canons in election law cases is bound to be more controversial and high-salience than their use in garden-variety statutory interpretation cases. In the context of a hot-button election law case, a court's use of a substantive canon may appear illegitimate and result-oriented. Moreover, because of the political stakes, judges may subconsciously rely on the canon in ways consistent with their political preferences. The best way to deal with the latter problem is through ex ante clear drafting by legislatures.
Finally, Part IV examines constitutional questions arising when a federal court is asked to overturn a state court's use of the Democracy Canon. When a state court construes a state statute to a question in a federal election (as in Samson or Palm Beach County Canvassing Board) it runs the risk of violating either Article II of the U.S. Constitution (vesting in each state legislature the power to set the rules for choosing presidential electors) or Article I, section 4 (vesting in each state legislature the power to set the rules for choosing members of Congress, at least to the extent Congress has not set such rules). Contrary to the position of the Bush v. Gore concurring Justices, this Article contends that use of the Democracy Canon to construe state statutes dealing with presidential or congressional elections does not violate Article II or Article I, section 4. Instead, the long-standing nature of the Democracy Canon and the values it supports give state courts ample authority to construe state election statutes covering federal elections in light of the Canon. Only when a state court relies upon the canon in a way that counters longstanding jurisprudence or practice should a federal court consider intervening in a state court election case on constitutional due process grounds.
Keywords: legislation, statutory interpretation, substantive canons, Bush v. Gore, New Jersey Democratic Party v. Samson
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