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Chestnut v. Merrill

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

January 28, 2019

LAKEISHA CHESTNUT, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
JOHN H. MERRILL, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KARON OWEN BOWDRE CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter comes before the court on Defendant's “Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings.” (Doc. 27). Defendant first raises jurisdiction-specifically whether this court must refer this case to a three-judge panel pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2284(a). The court always must determine whether it has jurisdiction before proceeding in any case. So, while Defendant raised several issues in his motion, the court will only address in this Memorandum Opinion whether it lacks jurisdiction and must refer this case to a three-judge panel.

         Under § 2284, as relevant here, a three-judge panel must hear a case if the case either (1) raises a constitutional challenge to an apportionment of congressional districts or (2) is “otherwise required by Act of Congress” to be heard by a panel. Plaintiffs allege that the Alabama congressional redistricting plan violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, 52 U.S.C. § 10301, but do not allege a constitutional violation. Section 2 does not require challenges brought under its authority to be heard by a three-judge panel.

         Defendant first raised this jurisdictional question in his “Notice of Jurisdictional Issue” on July 9, 2018.[1] (Doc. 12). On November 2, 2018, Defendant filed his “Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings” in which he contends that this court lacks jurisdiction because a three-judge panel must hear this case. (Doc. 27). Plaintiffs filed “Plaintiffs' Brief in Opposition to Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings” on November 30, 2018. (Doc. 31). On December 21, 2018, Defendant filed “Secretary of State John Merrill's Reply in Support of His Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Doc. 27).” (Doc. 37). On January 16, 2019, this court held a motion hearing on the issue of whether a three-judge panel must hear this case. (Doc. 35). The jurisdictional issue is now ripe for review.

         I. Background

         Plaintiffs are eight African-American citizens of Alabama. One Plaintiff resides in Congressional District (CD) 1, one resides in CD 2, one resides in CD 3, and five reside in CD 7. The redistricting plan currently used in Alabama, Senate Bill 484, allegedly “packs” African-American voters into CD 7. See S.B. 484, 2011 Reg. Sess. (Ala. 2011). The Alabama legislature established CD 7 as a majority-minority district following the 1982 Amendments of the Voting Rights Act. Nearly one-third of Alabama's African-American population falls into CD 7. Prior to the passage of S.B. 484, the black voting age population (BVAP) of CD 7 was 58.33%. Now, the CD 7 BVAP is 60.91%. Plaintiffs argue that S.B. 484 moved African-American voters from predominantly white districts into CD 7 to “pack” the district designated as a majority-minority district with African-American voters. The plan also allegedly “cracks” African-American voters in CDs 1, 2, and 3 by splitting among three districts those African-American voters who could be grouped together in a second majority-minority district. Plaintiffs contend that the African-American population in these districts could be united to form a second majority-minority CD.

         Plaintiffs only raise a Section 2 violation of the Voting Rights Act, alleging vote dilution. They do not raise a constitutional challenge to the redistricting plan.

         Defendant requests a three-judge panel under 28 U.S.C. § 2284. Defendant concedes that this case does not fall within the express language of § 2284's requirements for a three-judge panel. But Defendant argues that Plaintiffs selectively brought only a statutory claim precisely to avoid a three-judge panel, and, because the statutory claim is so similar to the corresponding constitutional claim Plaintiffs deliberately omitted, a three-judge panel should still hear the case. Further, Defendant maintains that the legislative history behind the 1976 amendments to § 2284 and the policies behind § 2284 coupled with the Voting Rights Act lean in favor of convening a three-judge panel to hear this case.

         Plaintiffs contend that this case should not go to a three-judge panel because § 2284(a) plainly states that a three-judge panel shall only be convened when challenging the constitutionality of the apportionment of congressional districts or “when otherwise required by Act of Congress.” Plaintiffs maintain that “the plaintiff [is] the master of the claim, ” so the court should honor their decision not to bring a constitutional challenge. See Beneficial Nat'l Bank v. Anderson, 539 U.S. 1, 12 (2003) (Scalia, J., dissenting) (quoting Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987)). Further, Plaintiffs argue that Section 2 does not require a three-judge panel, so Section 2 cannot be considered an Act of Congress “otherwise” requiring a three-judge panel to hear the case.

         II. Standard of Review

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(h)(3) states that “[i]f the court determines at any time that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, the court must dismiss the action.” Indeed, “it is incumbent upon [a] federal court[] . . . to constantly examine the basis of jurisdiction, doing so on [its] own motion if necessary.” Save the Bay, Inc. v. U.S. Army, 639 F.2d 1100, 1102 (5th Cir. 1981) (citing Rule 12(h)(3)); see also Louisville & Nashville R.R. v. Mottley, 211 U.S. 149, 152 (1908) (“[I]t is the duty of this court to see to it that the jurisdiction of the circuit court, which is defined and limited by statute, is not exceeded.”).

         III. Discussion

         Here, the parties do not contest whether a federal court may hear this case, but whether a three-judge panel must hear this case. Under 28 U.S.C. § 2284(a), “a district court of three judges shall be convened when otherwise required by Act of Congress, or when an action is filed challenging the constitutionality of the apportionment of congressional districts or the apportionment of any statewide legislative body.” If the court determines that the case must be heard by a three-judge panel, “the judge to whom the request is presented shall . . . immediately notify the chief judge of the circuit.” Id. § 2284(b)(1). If a three-judge panel is convened, a single judge may not enter a judgment on the merits. Id. § 2284(b)(3). So, this court must determine the jurisdictional question of whether this case is properly before a single judge before the case can continue.

         On its face, Plaintiffs' complaint only brings an action under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act-not under the 14th or 15th Amendments, which often accompany Section 2 causes of action; not under any other constitutional provision; and not under any ...


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