The Procedure of Election Law in Federal Courts
56 Pages Posted: 20 Sep 2010 Last revised: 29 Nov 2011
Date Written: November 28, 2011
Much attention is paid to the substantive outcomes of election law decisions. But little scholarship focuses on the mechanisms by which election law cases traverse the federal courts. This article fills that void.
The article first identifies the goals Congress should try to achieve in creating special procedures for election law cases. Congress has deemed election law cases to be particularly important given the foundational issues at stake in resolving election law disputes. Accordingly, the legislature has created various procedural mechanisms to shepherd these cases through the federal courts. What goals should underlie these processes? Based on the importance of election law cases to the foundation of our representative government and the history of judicial involvement in elections, election law court procedures should try to achieve the following goals: timeliness, accuracy, legitimacy, minimization of ideology, maximization of each judge’s skills, and signaling of the importance of election law cases to our democratic order. Although these goals may certainly be laudable for all cases, they are particularly important to elevate in the election arena given the high stakes involved and the importance of fair elections to the functioning of our democracy.
Next, the article dissects the three ways federal courts hear election law cases. First, a case can follow the “traditional” three-tiered path, starting with a single district judge, with direct appeal to a three-judge panel of the court of appeals and discretionary en banc or Supreme Court review. Second, certain cases start with a three-judge panel of the district court, which is comprised of two district judges and one circuit court judge, with direct mandatory appeal to the Supreme Court. Third, in a minority of election law cases, a dispute originates with a single district judge, who certifies nonfrivolous constitutional questions to the en banc circuit court, with certiorari review at the Supreme Court. The article explores each of these mechanisms, highlighting the intended and unintended consequences of each system. In particular, the article evaluates whether each process meets the six goals for federal court involvement in election law cases.
The article concludes by proposing, for all election law cases, a procedure that elevates these ideals: a modified form of the en banc certification process used in some federal court cases (which I term modified direct en banc review). This system best achieves the important goals identified earlier in the paper and streamlines federal court involvement in elections.
Keywords: election law, three-judge court, en banc, procedure, federal courts
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