No Exit? The Roberts Court and the Future of Election Law
22 Pages Posted: 18 Nov 2005 Last revised: 25 Jul 2013
This article, prepared for a symposium on voting rights in the South Carolina Law Review, examines the future of election law in the Roberts Court. Even before the death of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and the announced retirement of Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, election law scholars had declared that the Supreme Court had reached doctrinal interregnum. In the campaign finance arena, the Court's jurisprudence was becoming increasingly incoherent; voting rights law was said to be at law with itself; partisan gerrymandering claims in flux; and the question of Supreme Court oversight of the nuts-and-bolts of elections after Bush v. Gore a big mystery.
With the change of two Justices on the Supreme Court, exit from doctrinal incoherence and uncertainty becomes possible. The replacement of Chief Justice Rehnquist with new Chief Justice John Roberts and the replacement of Justice O'Connor with a new Justice appointed by President Bush could provide an opening for major changes in Supreme Court election law doctrine. This is especially true with Justice O'Connor's departure, because she has held the swing vote in key election law cases.
What sort of changes should we expect from the Roberts Court? Making predictions is exceedingly difficult when the swing votes likely will be held by those who have not expressed (or not expressed recently) views on these subjects, and concern for respecting (even wrong-headed) precedent could prove a strong force. And Justices' views certainly may change over time. Still, I work under the assumption that a conservative president who had apparently committed himself to appointing Justices in the mold of Justices Thomas and Scalia is unlikely to appoint Justices who in fact move the Court to the left, and could well move the Court to the right in key election law cases.
The result is that 5-10 years from now, the ground rules for American political competition could undergo a major change. Within the next decade, we could well see deregulation of campaign financing, a limiting of Congressional power to impose national solutions to problems of minority voting rights, and an upholding of state power to redistrict for partisan gain and impose increasingly draconian election administration tools enacted in the name of fraud prevention. The ability of states to manipulate election rules for partisan gain may present the greatest danger, as the Court exits from that corner of the political thicket. For those who look to courts for the promotion of political equality, the signs are not encouraging.
Keywords: election law, Supreme Court, Chief Justice Roberts, campaign finance, Bush v. Gore, Voting Rights Act, Partisan Gerrymandering
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation