WASHINGTON, D.C. — As of Nov. 3, Republican litigants in two federal lawsuits challenging Washington State’s legislative districts have appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
One of the redistricting lawsuits on appeal to the nation’s highest court, Soto Palmer v. Hobbs, brings claims under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which protects against racially discriminatory redistricting plans.
The other lawsuit, Garcia v. Hobbs, alleges racial gerrymandering claims under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits using race as the predominant factor in redistricting.
In June 2023, the Section 2 lawsuit went to trial alongside the separate — but related — racial gerrymandering lawsuit.
In a combined June 2023 trial over Washington’s legislative districts, a federal court heard both the Soto Palmer Section 2 lawsuit as well as the parallel, but distinct, Garcia racial gerrymandering case.
In the Soto Palmer case, which challenged the state’s legislative districts under Section 2 of the VRA, Latino voters alleged that Washigton’s redistricting plan intentionally “cracked” Latino voters into several districts in the Yakima Valley region, thereby diluting their voting strength. At trial, the plaintiffs maintained that the state’s 15th Legislative District is “racially discriminatory both in result and intent.”
In contrast, the plaintiff in the Garcia case — former Republican U.S. House candidate Benancio Garcia III — argued that the state’s 15th Legislative District was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander that violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The Garcia lawsuit specifically argued that race was impermissibly used as the predominant factor in drawing the district without any compelling reason.
While a single federal district judge oversaw the Section 2 litigation in Soto Palmer, a three-judge panel — consisting of judges appointed by Clinton, Trump and Biden — presided over the racial gerrymandering claim in the Garcia case. Under federal law, any lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of a congressional or state legislative apportionment plan is required to be heard by a federal three-judge panel rather than a single district court judge.
Following trial, the judge in the Soto Palmer case struck down Washington’s 15th Legislative District for violating Section 2. Republicans appealed this decision to the 9th Circuit.
In an August 2023 decision in the Soto Palmer case, Judge Robert Lasnik, a Clinton appointee who serves on U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, ruled in favor of Latino voters who challenged the state’s legislative districts under Section 2 of the VRA.
“[T]he Court finds that the boundaries of LD 15, in combination with the social, economic, and historical conditions in the Yakima Valley region, results in an inequality in the electoral opportunities enjoyed by white and Latino voters in the area,” Lasnik’s opinion reads. The decision ordered the state to adopt a revised legislative map that complies with Section 2 by a court-mandated deadline of Feb. 7, 2024.
Shortly after the Section 2 victory in Soto Palmer directing the state to implement a new, fair map for the 2024 election cycle, a group of Republican voters who intervened as defendants in the litigation appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Sept. 8.
Among the Republican intervenors opposing the Latino voters’ Section 2 argument in Soto Palmer are two Washington voters and a GOP member of the Washington House of Representatives. The Republican intervenors in Soto Palmer are represented by the same attorneys who serve as counsel for the Republican plaintiff in the Garcia racial gerrymandering case.
Following the Soto Palmer decision, the three-judge panel dismissed the Garcia racial gerrymandering case. Garcia appealed the dismissal directly to the Supreme Court.
Following the Section 2 decision in Soto Palmer, the three-judge panel in the Garcia lawsuit issued a 2-1 decision dismissing the case, concluding that the Soto Palmer decision rendered the racial gerrymandering allegation in the Garcia case moot. Subsequently, on Sept. 28, the Republican plaintiff appealed the dismissal of his racial gerrymandering claim to the U.S. Supreme Court.
As prescribed by federal law, any decision from a three-judge panel is appealable directly to the Supreme Court — and the Court has to accept the appeal and rule on the merits. While the Court does not necessarily have to hold a hearing or oral argument, it does have to make a final decision. The Court may opt to summarily affirm or reverse the three-judge panel’s decision or dismiss the appeal altogether in lieu of setting full merits briefing and holding oral argument.
In a jurisdictional statement filed in the Supreme Court, the former Republican U.S. House candidate asks the Court to reverse the three-judge panel’s dismissal of the racial gerrymandering claim to allow the panel to issue a decision on the merits.
Meanwhile, the Republican voters who appealed the Section 2 case to the 9th Circuit filed a new appeal to the Supreme Court.
Less than a month after appealing the Soto Palmer Section 2 ruling to the 9th Circuit, the Republican intervenors filed a petition for a writ of certiorari asking the Supreme Court to review the Soto Palmer case, arguing that it was wrongly decided. The Nov. 3 petition — which seeks to bypass the 9th Circuit — specifically asks the nation’s highest court to suspend proceedings in the Soto Palmer case and to reverse or vacate (void) the three-judge panel’s dismissal of the Garcia case as moot.
According to the petitioners, doing so would allow the three-judge panel to consider the merits of the racial gerrymander claim, which they argue should have been decided prior to the Section 2 claim.
Although Section 2 claims — unlike racial gerrymandering claims — are not directly appealable to the Supreme Court, the Republican intervenors contend that the Court should first allow the racial gerrymandering case to be decided, after which both the Soto Palmer and Garcia cases could be considered simultaneously on appeal if necessary. According to the petitioners, such a trajectory would allow the Court to “issue a ruling that resolves the clash between equal protection and Section 2 claims” before the 2024 election cycle.
This is not the first time Republican litigants have argued that Section 2 claims conflict with racial gerrymandering claims brought under the U.S. Constitution.
Just last June, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Section 2 of the voting rights act in Allen v. Milligan, a congressional redistricting case out of Alabama. In doing so, the 5-4 majority rejected an argument proffered by the state of Alabama suggesting that Section 2 of the VRA violates the U.S. Constitution’s 14th and 15th Amendments by allowing for “race-based redistricting” over “race-neutral” districts.
In a flat-out rejection of Alabama’s argument, the majority opinion called out “Alabama’s attempt to remake our [Section 2] jurisprudence anew” by demanding “race neutrality” in redistricting.
As Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson stated during oral argument in Allen: “I don’t think we can assume that just because race is taken into account, that…necessarily creates an equal protection problem…When I read Section 2, I don’t see that Congress is requiring race neutrality…It seems as though Congress is authorizing the consideration of race,” just as the framers did when they adopted the Reconstruction Amendments.