U.S. Supreme Court Weighs in on Two Appeals Over Washington’s Legislative Map

WASHINGTON, D.C. The U.S. Supreme Court this morning issued orders in a duo of federal lawsuits concerning Washington state’s legislative map. 

In one order, the Court denied a request from Republican litigants seeking review of an August 2023 decision that struck down Washington’s legislative map for unlawfully diluting Latino voting power in the Yakima Valley Region under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. As a result of the Court’s refusal to take up the Republican petitioners’ appeal, a redraw of the state’s legislative map can proceed in the district court, which will review various remedial map proposals at a March 8 hearing. 

In the second order, the Court voided a three-judge panel’s September 2023 decision to dismiss a Republican lawsuit alleging that Washington’s legislative map is racially gerrymandered in violation of the U.S. Constitution. 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. 

In vacating the September 2023 decision, the Court also ordered the three-judge panel to issue a “fresh judgment,” which it stipulated may then be appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Although federal law states that certain decisions — specifically orders granting or denying injunctions — from three-judge panels are directly appealable to the Supreme Court under, the order at issue in this appeal was a dismissal on jurisdictional grounds rather than an injunction regarding Washington’s legislative map. 

In ordering the three-judge panel to enter a new judgment that is appealable to the 9th Circuit, the Supreme Court evidently accepted a secondary argument made by the Republican appellant that “[i]f the Court…finds it lacks appellate jurisdiction…the Court [should] ‘vacate the order before [it] and remand the case to the District Court so that a fresh order may be entered and a timely appeal prosecuted to the Court of Appeals.’” In other words, the Court today agreed to send the racial gerrymandering case back to the three-judge panel and instructed it to enter a new order of dismissal which can subsequently be appealed to the 9th Circuit, where litigation will continue.

In June 2023, a federal district court held a combined trial over Washington’s legislative maps involving a Section 2 case, Soto Palmer v. Hobbs, as well as a racial gerrymandering case known as Garcia v. Hobbs. The Section 2 case brought on behalf of Latino voters alleged that Washington’s 15th Legislative District unlawfully prevented Latino voters from electing their preferred candidate in contravention of the Voting Rights Act. 

In contrast, the racial gerrymandering case — which was filed by former Republican U.S. House candidate Benancio Garcia III — argued that race was impermissibly used as the predominant factor in drawing the 15th Legislative District without a compelling reason, thereby constituting a violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

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.

Following the combined trial, 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 in the Soto Palmer lawsuit who challenged the state’s legislative districts under the Voting Rights Act and ordered a new map for the 2024 election cycle. 

Less than a month later, 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.

Following decisions in both the Section 2 and racial gerrymandering cases, Republican litigants appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which resolved the appeals today.  

Shortly after the ruling in Soto Palmer directing the state to implement a new, Section 2-compliant 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. Among the Republican intervenors who opposed the Latino voters’ Section 2 argument are two Washington voters and a GOP member of the Washington House of Representatives. 

Less than a month after appealing 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 Republican intervenors, seeking to bypass the 9th Circuit, urged the Supreme Court to suspend proceedings in the Section 2 case and to reverse or void the three-judge panel’s dismissal of the related Garcia racial gerrymandering. According to the petitioners, the three-judge panel should have decided on the merits of the racial gerrymander claim prior to any decision on the Latino voters’ Section 2 claim. 

Meanwhile in the Garcia case, the Republican plaintiff — who is represented by the same attorneys who serve as counsel for the Republican intervenors in Soto Palmerappealed the dismissal of his racial gerrymandering claim directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

With today’s Supreme Court order denying the Republicans’ cert petition in the Section 2 case, but agreeing to vacate the three-judge panel’s dismissal of Garcia’s racial gerrymandering case, litigation in both cases remains ongoing.

As litigation in both cases continues, a map redraw will proceed in the Section 2 case.  

Despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s reopening of the racial gerrymandering challenge, the map redrawing process is moving forward under the supervision of Judge Lasnik in the Section 2 Soto Palmer case at the district court level. On March 8, 2024, the court will hold an evidentiary hearing regarding the plaintiffs’ proposed remedial maps

As of now, the Republican intervenors’ appeal of Lasnik’s decision in the 9th Circuit remains paused pending the district court’s adoption of a remedial map. Per today’s second Supreme Court order, litigation in the racial gerrymandering case will resume now that the three-judge panel has been instructed to enter a “fresh judgment,” which can be appealed to the 9th Circuit. 

Read the orders here.

Learn more about the cases here.