A federal judge in Washington on December 21 dismissed a lawsuit that alleged the U.S. Senate filibuster rule is unconstitutional.
The judge, Emmet Sullivan of U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, said “reaching the merits of this case would require an invasion” into internal Senate processes and “would thus express a lack of respect for the Senate as a coordinate branch of government.”
“The court acknowledges at the outset that the Filibuster Rule is an important and controversial issue,” Sullivan wrote. In recent years, the judge continued, “even the mere threat of a filibuster is powerful enough to completely forestall legislative action. However, this court finds itself powerless to address this issue for two independent reasons.”
Sullivan said the plaintiffs, the government accountability group Common Cause, four members of the House of Representatives and three individuals, do not have legal standing to challenge the filibuster rule. The judge rejected the argument that vote nullification — the alleged injury among the House members — reaches the threshold for legal standing.
“Second, and no less important, the court is firmly convinced that to intrude into this area would offend the separation of powers on which the Constitution rests,” Sullivan said. “Nowhere does the Constitution contain express requirements regarding the proper length of, or method for, the Senate to debate proposed legislation.”
The internal proceedings of the legislative branch, Sullivan said, “are beyond the jurisdiction of this court.”
Common Cause filed the suit in May to “end Senate gridlock,” the group said in their announcement of the litigation.
“America can’t wait any longer for Congress to tackle our nation’s problems,” Common Cause president Bob Edgar said in a statement then. “We can’t afford to let a minority of U.S. senators block action. It’s wrong, and it’s unconstitutional. It’s time to restore majority rule in Washington and get the country moving again.”
Atlanta attorney Emmet Bondurant argued for the plaintiffs at a hearing in the case this month in Washington. In court, Bondurant, a partner at Bondurant Mixson & Elmore, said the filibuster rule unfairly allows a single senator to block the will of the majority.
The plaintiffs in the case include undocumented residents who would have been granted a chance to obtain citizenship through the DREAM Act. The legislation died in the Senate amid a filibuster. “The majority was not allowed to even debate on it,” Bondurant said at the hearing. “The majority is hamstrung by its own rules.”
The Office of Senate Legal Counsel urged Sullivan to dismiss the suit on standing grounds and the judicial branch’s lack of authority to change internal Senate rules. “That’s not vote nullification if the Senate fails to make a vote,” Senate lawyer Thomas Caballero said at the hearing on December 10.
Sullivan said in his ruling that the plaintiffs “have identified no constitutional restraint on the Senate’s power to make rules regulating debate.”
A Common Cause spokeswoman said the plaintiffs are reviewing the decision and considering appellate options.
“We still think it’s a strong case,” Mary Boyle said. “This was not a ruling on the merits of the constitutionality of the filibuster rule but whether we have standing to sue.”
Mike Scarcella is a reporter for The National Law Journal, a Legal affiliate based in New York. This article first appeared on The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times. •