Supreme Court Clarifies When a District Judge Must Convene a Three-Judge District Court In Redistricting Cases
Samuel T. Wolf
When a person files a lawsuit in federal court “challenging the constitutionality of the apportionment of congressional districts or the apportionment of any statewide legislative body,” the person may request that the case be heard by a three-judge district court. 28 U.S.C. § 2284(a). Another subsection of the same statute provides, “Upon the filing of a request for three judges, the judge to whom the request is presented shall, unless he determines that three judges are not required, immediately notify the chief judge of the circuit, who shall designate two other judges” for the three-judge court. § 2284(b)(1).
After Maryland enacted a 2011 statute establishing congressional districts based on the 2010 Census, several people filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland. They alleged that the congressional redistricting burdens their right of political association under the First Amendment, and the plaintiffs requested that a three-judge district court decide the case...
The judge to whom the case was referred decided the case on his own, finding that the plaintiffs failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted because the redistricting does not in any way affect their freedom of association. The judge interpreted the statutory language, “unless he determines that three judges are not required,” to permit him to decide the case on his own if the plaintiffs did not state a cause of action. The Fourth Circuit summarily affirmed the lower court’s decision in an unreported opinion.
Today, a unanimous Supreme Court reversed the lower courts’ decisions. The Court held that when a party properly requests that a three-judge district court hear a case challenging the constitutionality of redistricting, the district court judge to whom the case is referred must follow the procedures to convene a three-judge court. The language, “unless he determines that three judges are not required,” means only that the judge need not convene a three-judge court if he finds that the allegations of the complaint do not challenge the constitutionality of congressional or statewide legislative redistricting.
Shapiro v. McManus, 577 U.S. ___, No. 14-990 (Dec. 8, 2015).