By Elizabeth Price Foley and David Rivkin, March 3 2015, 11:57am
In Federalist No. 22, Alexander Hamilton observed, “Laws are a dead letter without the courts to expound and define their true meaning and operation.” In constitutional controversies, the judiciary’s role is even more profound. Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, a case that will signal how willing the Court is to prevent separation of powers from becoming a dead letter.
Separation of powers protects individual liberty by preventing any one branch of government from amassing too much power. It also ensures that government functions effectively, by assigning to each branch those powers that are most appropriate to its nature. For example, legislating is best accomplished by a multi-member body that engages in extended debate and deliberation. By contrast, waging war requires timeliness, and is thus best given to a unitary executive.
The Arizona case involves a turf dispute between Arizona’s legislative and executive branches, but it’s unclear if the Court is amenable to refereeing this constitutional conflict. The case is therefore a canary in the coalmine for “legislative standing,” which means a legislature’s ability to defend, in court, its lawmaking prerogative against executive assault. This is important not only to Arizona’s legislature, but any legislature, including the U.S. Congress.
At issue in the case is the constitutionality of Proposition 106, a referendum passed by Arizona voters that divested the legislature of drawing the state’s congressional districts and gave that power to an independent commission. When the commission redrew the districts in 2012, the Arizona legislature filed suit, asserting that the commission had violated Article I, section 4, of the U.S. Constitution, stating, “the Times, Places and Manner of holding elections for … Representatives [in the House] shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof .”
Before the meaning of this language can be resolved by the Court, it must first find that the Arizona legislature has standing to sue. In over 225 years of constitutional history, the Court hasn’t definitely articulated when legislative standing is proper. Read more »