21 February 2006

SCOTUS Keeps Colorado Redistricting Case Alive

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a case, Lance v. Dennis, challenging a Colorado Supreme Court finding invalidating a second attempt to redistrict the state's congressional boundaries, after they had already been drawn by a judge when there was a legislative deadlock, will continue to proceed.

This sends the case back to federal district court and could throw the 2006 Congressional election in Colorado into turmoil if the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado ends up ruling differently than the Colorado Supreme Court in the case.

The federal trial court held that the case was barred by an obscure procedural rule known as the Rooker-Feldman doctrine which bans de facto appeals of state court decisions in federal trial courts. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed and held, unanimously, that the trial court ruling on this issue was incorrect.

In particular, the high court found that the citizens who brought the federal court suit were not sufficiently tied to the parties to the other lawsuits over redistricting to be bound by the decisions in those cases under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which is a very narrow bar to federal lawsuits in a very particular kind of case where the same people who are the litigants in the state court are also the Plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision doesn't cast much light on the Court's view of the merits of the dispute. The Court declined to grant certiorari in 2004 from the Colorado Supreme Court decision. But, that could have been because there were still other lawsuits in play. This case was an election case tried before a special three judge panel, from which there is an appeal of right, rather than a certiorari petition, so the U.S. Supreme Court had no choice to consider the case, regardless of how important or unimportant they believed it to be. And, because they dealt only with the procedural issue (which has broad application to federal practice beyond this case), it is impossible to know how an appeal on the merits would come out.

Only Justice Stevens dissented. His opinion argued that while the majority opinion ruled correctly on the procedural issue that it decided, that this was harmless error, because another procedural doctrine, issue preclusion, provided a sufficient justification for reaching the same result. The other eight justices preferred to let the case takes its course without addressing any other issues in the case at this time.

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