Among the end-of-term decisions handed down by the Supreme Court was Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. It was an important case–had the legislature prevailed, it would have dealt a near-fatal blow to the ability of good government groups to address the practice of gerrymandering.
Some years back, via a referendum, Arizona citizens struck a blow against gerrymandering by establishing a nonpartisan commission to draw its election maps. The state legislature sued, asserting that language in the Constitution limits the right to regulate national elections to Congress and state legislatures.
In a decision that legislative scholar Tom Mann called “a model of constitutional reasoning,” a divided Court upheld the right of citizens to determine who shall
…have the ultimate authority over who shall represent them in public office. The majority opinion quotes Madison to powerful effect: “The genius of republican liberty seems to demand . . . not only that all power should be derived from the people, but those entrusted with it should be kept in dependence on the people.”
The main, and best, justification for direct democracy is precisely the need for this kind of check, just as the voters in Arizona exercised, on the self-interested temptations of power when legislators regulate the political process itself.
Direct democracy is hardly a panacea or a pure expression of “the popular will,” whatever that means; voters must be organized and informed, which takes resources and organizational skill. Still, direct democracy remains an important means of policing the inevitable temptations those in power have to entrench themselves more securely in power.
On Monday the court rightly recognized that, when the Constitution assigned the elections clause power to the “legislatures,” the framers were not making a judgment about whether states could create direct democratic processes as another way to regulate the national election process. Unlike their rejection of popular Senate elections, the framers did not reject popular regulation of elections: They just never considered the idea. To reject it in their name, the court wisely concluded, would have been perverse.
It isn’t easy to rein in the self-interested process of legislative line-drawing under even the best of circumstances; those who have power only surrender that power when they have no choice. Had the Arizona legislature’s challenge succeeded, redistricting reform would be virtually impossible.
File this one under “dodged a bullet.”