The Supreme Court’s First Case back in Session: Carney v. Adams

By Allesandra Plourde

On Monday October 5, 2020 the Supreme Court heard the first of their session’s oral arguments for the case Carney v. Adams. This is the first time they’ve heard a case since the passing of the honorable Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

The main issue of this case is whether it is constitutional for judges to be limited to the Republican or Democratic party for service within Article IV, Section 3 of Delaware’s State Constitution that does not allow Independents to hold judicial positions.

According to a provision in the Delaware State Constitution to obtain a judicial position a person must be affiliated to a major political party i.e. Democrat or Republican. The respondent in this case, James R. Adams, decided to not apply for these positions because he thought he did not qualify on the grounds that he was unaffiliated to a political party.  

Therefore, Adams filed a lawsuit against John C. Carney the Governor of Delaware. Claiming that the provision in the Delaware State Constitution is unconstitutional.

“Delaware’s constitution denies Mr. Adams the opportunity to apply for a judgeship because he does not belong to a major political party.” said David L. Finger, Adam’s representation, during his opening argument. “The language ‘political party’ excludes unaffiliated voters…. As long as judicial seats are allocated exclusively to political parties, unaffiliated lawyers are categorically excluded.”

Justice Thomas references Lujan v. Defenders of the Wildlife in which the court ruled, “That a petitioner’s “someday” intentions really were not sufficiently concrete to amount to an injury,” said Justice Thomas in court. In regard to this case, “This looks — and his intentions of someday doing something did not amount to an injury. This looks much like that. And would you tell me how this differs from the problem that we had in Lujan?” said Justice Thomas to Finger. Finger responded by citing the case Friends of the Earth v. Laidlaw, in which the Supreme court clarifies that “saying that a statement that someone would take action but for unlawful conduct goes beyond mere someday intention,” said Finger.

Adams is a part of the Delaware Bar Association and he is a previously registered Democrat. However, he wanted to be able to apply for any judge position even though he is no longer a registered Democrat. Although, Adams is eligible for a judgeship position in two of the five Delaware State Courts because in those particular courts you can be an independent. These are Family Court and the Court of Common Pleas.

Chief Justice Roberts asked Michael McConnell, Carney’s representation, in his arguments if he thinks Adams is “ready and able” to serve as deemed by previous SCOTUS cases. McConnell states that Adams refused numerous judgeship opportunities in the past. Even though he was “interested in them,” said McConnell; therefore, there should be no reason for Adams argue that now he wants to take this position.

Chief Justice Roberts then questioned that since previous statements had been made about Adams not applying for judgeships, he was qualified for what the reasoning for is wanting them all to be nonpartisan. “In this case, it’s a question of political thought,” said Finger.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that sections of the “bare majority” provision was unconstitutional, because it violated Adam’s First Amendment right. However, the ruling also said there is no basis for Adams to sue because he falls within some qualifications of Article IV, Section 3. Finger asked the Supreme Court to uphold the decision of the Third Circuit, in which they found the provision to be unconstitutional. That is cited with the SCOTUS precedent for cases Branti v. Finkel and Elrod v. Burns.

McConnell argued that the provision was constitutional because, “Delaware has used that freedom to create a system unique among the states of constitutionally-mandated political balance for its judiciary, with the result that Delaware’s courts are widely regarded as the least partisan and most professional in the nation,” said McConnell.

“But how do you get around the fact that the way that it’s written and applied is you have to be a Republican or a Democrat,” said Justice Breyer during the hearing. “And there are other parties, period. And so why is it constitutional?” McConnell argues that the provision is constitutional because it propels the courts forward in terms of “governmental interest.”

In McConnell’s closing remarks he states that Delaware courts have continued to remain non-partisan for the last 27 years despite a single party being the control of the state Senate. “That is a remarkable achievement,” said McConnell. “We may not be able to prove with scientific precision that Article IV, Section 3 is the cause, but we don’t want to risk it. States all over the country use partisan affiliation as part of judicial selection with partisan elections and partisan appointments.”

The Supreme Court has not yet filed a ruling on this case.

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