Legal challenge to judicial balance law dismissed by Supreme Court

DOVER — The nation’s top court Thursday rejected a challenge to a Delaware law requiring the courts to be politically balanced, partially overturning a lower court’s decision.

The Supreme Court, which heard arguments on the case in October, ruled 8-0 that the plaintiff lacked standing and thus dismissed the case.

At issue was language in the state constitution requiring each of the five major courts to have as close to an even breakdown of judges by political party as possible. The seven-member Court of Chancery, for instance, cannot have more than four Republicans or four Democrats. If the court has four members of one party and one of the individuals in the minority party leaves, the governor must nominate someone from that same party.

While each court must have no more than a “bare majority” from one party, the Supreme, Superior and Chancery courts are limited to individuals from the two major political parties.

In place for more than a century, the provision is frequently cited by Delaware judges, elected officials and attorneys as one of the reasons the state’s judiciary is so well-respected and effective.

In 2017, James Adams, an attorney and registered independent voter, filed suit, arguing that the law strips many in the state “of opportunities for judicial appointments because of their political affiliation, in violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”

The chief magistrate judge for the District of Delaware struck down the law, prompting the state to appeal. In 2019, a three-member panel for the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Mr. Adams. Although the ruling in effect gave the governor more power, Gov. John Carney appealed to the nation’s top court.

Originally set to be heard in March, the case was delayed because of the pandemic.

The Supreme Court said Thursday it dismissed the case because Mr. Adams failed to show he was “able and ready” to apply for a judgeship. A lifelong Democrat, he changed his registration after reading a law review article speculating that the statute is unconstitutional. He also failed to apply for any judgeships even before changing his affiliation.

“It suggests an abstract, generalized grievance, not an actual desire to become a judge. Indeed, Adams’ failure to apply previously when he was eligible, his reading of the law review article, his change of party affiliation, and his swift subsequent filing of the complaint show a desire to vindicate his view of the law, as articulated in the article he read,” Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the court, concluded.

Well-established precedent holds that the Supreme Court does not issue advisory opinions and thus, having determined Mr. Adams lacks standing, cannot rule on the constitutionality of the law.

In a separate opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who concurred with the other justices, noted that bare-majority requirements are not uncommon and “have been shown to help achieve ideological diversity,” while the major-party portion of the law does “arguably impose a greater burden on First Amendment associational rights.” She recommended the Delaware Supreme Court consider the issue, including whether invalidating the latter would also strike down the bare-majority requirement.

Delaware’s five most recent governors and three most recent chief justices, along with the Republican National Committee, the Delaware State Bar Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures, among others, filed briefs supporting the state’s position.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who was nominated and confirmed after the arguments, did not take part in the deliberations.