U.S. Supreme Court

Standing issue keeps SCOTUS from ruling on state requirement for politically balanced courts

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A Delaware lawyer didn’t have standing to challenge a state requirement for political balance and major-party judges on the state’s top courts, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

Lawyer James Adams didn’t have standing because he didn’t show he was “able and ready” to apply for a judgeship, the court said in a unanimous Dec. 10 opinion by Justice Stephen G. Breyer. Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not take part in the decision.

The Delaware Constitution provides that no more than a bare majority of seats on any of its five major courts may belong to any one political party. On the top three courts, the remaining judges must belong to “the other major political party.”

Delaware’s governor selects judges from a list provided by a judicial nominating commission.

Adams had contended that it would be futile to apply for a judgeship because he is an independent who is neither Republican nor Democrat.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Philadelphia had ruled that Adams did not have standing to challenge the bare-majority requirement, but he did have standing to challenge the major-party requirement. The appeals court went on to rule that the major-party requirement violated the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court said Adams did not have standing to challenge either requirement.

To prove harm, Adams must at least show that he would be likely to apply to become a judge in the reasonably foreseeable future if he wasn’t barred because of political affiliation, Breyer said.

Although Adams had stated that he wants to be a judge, he did not apply for the position between 2012 and 2016, when he was a practicing lawyer and a registered Democrat, Breyer said. Then in 2016, Adams changed his bar membership from “active” to “emeritus.”

Adams changed back to active status in January 2017, around the same time that he read a law review article arguing that the judicial eligibility requirements were unconstitutional because they excluded independents. In February 2017, Adams changed his political affiliation to independent. He filed the lawsuit eight days later.

“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,” Breyer said.

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