SCOTUS Relies on lack of Standing to Uphold Delaware Judicial Balance Requirement
In Carney v. Adams, 592 U. S. ____ (2020), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a provision in the Delaware State Constitution that requires that appointments to Delaware’s major courts reflect a partisan balance. The Court unanimously held that the plaintiff, a Delaware lawyer, lacked standing to bring the legal challenge and, thereby avoiding having to answer the more complex constitutional issue of whether the provision violated the First Amendment.
Facts of the Case
Delaware’s Constitution contains a political balance requirement for appointments to the State’s major courts. No more than a bare majority of judges on any of its five major courts “shall be of the same political party.” In addition, on three of those courts, those members not in the bare majority “shall be of the other major political party.”
Respondent James R. Adams, a Delaware lawyer and political independent, sued in Federal District Court, claiming that Delaware’s “bare majority” and “major party” requirements violate his First Amendment right to freedom of association by making him ineligible to become a judge unless he joins a major political party. The District Court held that Adams had standing to challenge both requirements and that Delaware’s balancing scheme was unconstitutional.
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part. It held that Adams did have standing to challenge the major party requirement, because it categorically excludes independents from becoming judges on three courts, but that he lacked standing to challenge the bare majority requirement, which does not preclude independents from eligibility for any vacancy.
Supreme Court’s Decision
The Supreme Court reversed. “Because Adams has not shown that he was ‘able and ready’ to apply for a judicial vacancy in the imminent future, he has failed to show a ‘personal,’ ‘concrete,’ and ‘imminent’ injury necessary for Article III standing,” the Court held.
As Justice Stephen Breyer explained on behalf of the Court, standing requires an “injury in fact” that must be “concrete and particularized,” as well as “actual or imminent.” In addition, a grievance that amounts to nothing more than an abstract and generalized harm to a citizen’s interest in the proper application of the law does not count as an “injury in fact” and does not show standing.
In this case, the Court concluded that Adams failed to show the necessary “injury in fact.” According to the Court, to establish that he will suffer a concrete, particularized, and imminent injury beyond a generalized grievance, Adams must at least show that he is likely to apply to become a judge in the reasonably foreseeable future, if he were not barred because of political affiliation.
As noted by the Court, Adams did not apply for numerous existing judicial vacancies while he was a registered Democrat and eligible for those vacancies. He then read a law review article arguing that Delaware’s judicial eligibility requirements unconstitutionally excluded independents, changed his political affiliation to independent, and filed this lawsuit shortly thereafter. The Court went on to find that Adams’ statements that he wanted to be, and would apply to be, a judge on any of Delaware’s five courts were insufficient. Justice Breyer wrote:
If we were to hold that Adams’ few words of general intent—without more and against all contrary evidence—were sufficient here to show an “injury in fact,” we would significantly weaken the longstanding legal doctrine preventing this Court from providing advisory opinions at the request of one who, without other concrete injury, believes that the government is not following the law. Adams did not show that he was “able and ready” to apply for a vacancy in the reasonably imminent future. Adams has not sufficiently differentiated himself from a general population of individuals affected in the abstract by the legal pro- vision he attacks. We do not decide whether a statement of intent alone under other circumstances could be enough to show standing. But we are satisfied that Adams’ words alone are not enough here when placed in the context of this particular record.
Based on the foregoing, the Court reversed the Third Circuit’s decision in respect to standing, vacated the judgment, and remanded with instructions to dismiss the case.
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Preamble to the Bill of Rights
Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.