The Supreme Court Upholds the Redistricting Commission’s Choice of the Democrats’ Congressional District Map

In re Establishment of Congressional Districts by the New Jersey Redistricting Commission, ___ N.J. ___ (2022). As summarized here, in a lawsuit brought directly to the Supreme Court under its original jurisdiction, Republicans challenged the decision of the New Jersey Redistricting Commission to select the Democrats’ proposed Congressional district map over the map proposed by Republicans. In a 24-page Order signed by Chief Justice Rabner, the Court voted 5-0 to dismiss the Complaint and uphold the Commission’s decision. Joining the Chief Justice were Justices Albin, Patterson, and Solomon, and Judge Fuentes. Justices Fernandez-Vina and Pierre-Louis did not participate.

The Court derived its standard of review from Davenport v. Apportionment Comm’n, 65 N.J. 125 (1974). Reapportionment plans “must be accorded a presumption of legality with judicial intervention warranted only if some positive showing of invidious discrimination or other constitutional deficiency is made. The judiciary is not justified in striking down a plan, otherwise valid, because a ‘better’ one, in its opinion, could be drawn.”

The Court held that the Complaint failed to meet this “stringent” standard. Plaintiffs claimed that the actions of the Commission’s Chair, retired Justice Wallace, were “’arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable,’” presented violations of “’federal and state constitutional equal protection and due process protections,’” and posed a “’common law conflict of interest.’” But plaintiffs did not “assert that the map the Commission adopted — which the Democratic delegation and the Chair voted for — was itself ‘unlawful.’”

The Court first disposed of some threshold questions raised by both sides. The Democrats contended that the Republican plaintiffs lacked standing. The Court correctly rejected that argument. New Jersey has more liberal standing rules than do the federal courts, and parties need only show a sufficient stake in the controversy and real adverseness. A compelling public interest adds to the likelihood that standing will be found.

Here, “[p]laintiffs have a strong stake in the outcome of the redistricting process and are plainly adverse to the map adopted. Their assertion of personal harm as members of the delegation is less strong, but the overriding public interest in this case is compelling.” Plaintiffs therefore had standing.

The Democrats also argued that the lawsuit presented a nonjusticiable political question. The Court disagreed. “[T]he Constitution grants the Supreme Court ‘jurisdiction over any judicial proceeding challenging . . . any action, including the establishment of Congressional districts, by the commission.’ ” N.J. Const. art. II, § 2, ¶ 7. The Court’s narrow role in that regard — limited to challenges over whether a map is unlawful — avoids political questions that could be raised by a review of the Commission’s decisions.”

The Court then found moot a threshold argument raised by the Republicans. They had argued that Justice Wallace’s amplified statement of reasons, made at the Court’s previous request, violated the Open Public Meetings Act, N.J.S.A. 10:4-6 et seq. The Court found that moot because the Court decided not to consider the amplified statement, given the challenges made by plaintiffs and the scope of the Court’s review. In a footnote, however, the Court cast doubt on the merits of the Republicans’ argument in that regard.

On the merits, none of plaintiffs’ claims alleged that the Commission’s decision was unlawful. Challenges to the Chair’s reasoning did not cut any ice since the Court did not rely on that. A fundamental fairness argument, which goes to “unjust and arbitrary governmental action,” and a claim that the Commission’s decision was arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable, did not allege that the map accepted was unlawful.

Finally, plaintiffs for the first time argued that Justice Wallace had a common law conflict of interest because his wife had made a contribution to a New Jersey member of Congress in 2021. The Court noted that the facts of that contribution were “readily available to the public” on the Federal Election Commission’s website, and that plaintiffs did not make this argument until after Justice Wallace sided with the opposing map. Thus, there was a “strong argument” that plaintiffs had waived the conflict claim.

Regardless, that contention failed on the merits. “[T]he Constitution sets forth specific qualifications for the independent member: the individual must have been a New Jersey resident for the last five years and cannot ‘have held public or party office’ in New Jersey during that time. N.J. Const. art. II, § 2, ¶ 1(c).” Since the Constitution spoke, the Court would not engraft “additional qualifications” from the common law. “The Constitution does not bar the selection of a person who has contributed to a political campaign or a partisan political group, or whose spouse has done so, as the independent member. See N.J. Const. art. II, § 2, ¶ 2.” Accordingly, the conflict argument failed.

In the current time, many courts are too often fractured along partisan lines in their decisions on election and other contentious issues. It is noteworthy, and praiseworthy, that the Supreme Court’s unanimous vote here embraced Justices belonging to, and appointed by Governors of, both major parties.