What the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bethune-Hill Decision Means for Legislative Intervenors in Wisconsin

Published by Jeffrey A. Mandell on

Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill, No. 18-281 (U.S. June 17, 2019), that one chamber of the Virginia legislature lacked legal standing to appeal a federal court order requiring that some legislative districts be withdrawn. Virginia’s Attorney General had defended the districts in the trial court, but ultimately decided not to pursue the argument on appeal. When the House of Delegates, which had intervened in the redistricting dispute, sought to prosecute the appeal itself, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal.

The case is of more than passing interest here in Wisconsin, where our Legislature has recently increased its legal authority to intervene in litigation. What, if anything, does this new decision from the U.S. Supreme Court portend for cases in which the Wisconsin Legislature might seek to participate? The answer in any given case will likely turn on the particular circumstances, but this week’s decision suggests the new intervention laws might not give the Wisconsin Legislature as much leverage in federal-court litigation as might have been imagined.

To begin, a little background. In December 2018, new Wisconsin laws expanded the Legislature’s authority to intervene in litigation. (Litigation challenging these laws, both procedurally and substantively, is pending at the Wisconsin Supreme Court; this blog post assumes for the sake of argument that the intervention provisions are valid.) Under a new provision of law, any time

a party to an action challenges in state or federal court the constitutionality of a statute, facially or as applied, challenges a statute as violating or preempted by federal law, or otherwise challenges the construction or validity of a statute, as part of a claim or an affirmative defense, the assembly, the senate, and the legislature may intervene … at any time in the action as a matter of right.

Wis. Stat. § 803.09(2m); accord Wis. Stat. § 13.365. In the case of such intervention, “the assembly shall represent the assembly, the senate shall represent the senate, and the joint committee on legislative organization shall represent the legislature.” Wis. Stat. § 13.90(2). Additionally, with respect to appeals, “[t]he joint committee on legislative organization may intervene as permitted under s. 803.09(2m) at any time.” Wis. Stat. § 165.25(1).

In short, since last December the law purports to let either house of the Wisconsin Legislature, or both houses acting as the Legislature, insert itself into any litigation involving the validity, enforceability, or proper interpretation of a state statute. Such intervention is accomplished on behalf of the legislative organ that intervenes—that is, the assembly, the senate, or the legislature represents itself, not the State of Wisconsin—and, at least with respect to appeals, legislative intervention neither “deprives [n]or relieves the attorney general or the department of justice of any authority or duty under this chapter.” Wis. Stat. § 165.25(1). 

With this background, we can compare Wisconsin’s intervention statutes with the Virginia framework that informed the Bethune-Hill decision. In Bethune-Hill, the majority opinion (written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for an ideologically heterodox coalition including Justices Thomas, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Gorsuch) considered two possible bases for the House of Delegates to pursue the appeal. First, “if the State had designated the House to represent its interests, and if the House had in fact carried out that mission, [then] the House could stand in for the State.” Slip op. at 4. Second, if the redistricting order caused sufficient harm to the House itself, that could confer legal standing for the House to appeal. See id. at 7. Only the first of these arguments is relevant for present purposes. (There is a dissenting opinion in Bethune-Hill, but it addresses only the second argument and is therefore not relevant to the discussion below.)

The majority notes that, under Virginia law, “[a]uthority and responsibility for representing the State’s interests in civil litigation … rest exclusively with the State’s Attorney General. Id. at 4 (citing Va. Code Ann. § 2.2-507(A)). It notes that the State “could have authorized the House to litigate on the State’s behalf, either generally or in a defined class of cases. Some States have done just that.” Id. at 5 (internal citation omitted). So, where in this scale does Wisconsin fall?

Arguably, Wisconsin is more like Virginia than those “other States” that have authorized legislative intervenors to represent the State’s sovereign interest. Wisconsin’s intervention statutes specify that, when one or more legislative organs intervenes, “the assembly shall represent the assembly, the senate shall represent the senate, and the joint committee on legislative organization shall represent the legislature.” Wis. Stat. § 13.90(2). None of the legislative entities authorized to intervene is empowered by law to represent the State. Moreover, at least for purposes of appeal, Wisconsin, like Virginia, appears to have “chosen to speak as a sovereign entity with a single voice.” Bethune-Hill, slip op. at 5. The Attorney General represents the State as a sovereign entity, and legislative intervention neither “deprives [n]or relieves the attorney general or the department of justice of any authority or duty under this chapter.” Wis. Stat. § 165.25(1).

One might argue that, under Wisconsin precedent, an intervenor’s “status after intervention is the same as all the other participants in the proceeding.” Zellner v. Herrick, 2009 WI 80, ¶22, 319 Wis. 2d 532, 770 N.W.2d 305 (quoting Kohler Co. v. Sogen Int’l Fund, Inc., 2000 WI App 60, ¶11, 233 Wis. 2d 592, 608 N.W.2d 746). If Wisconsin law authorizes the assembly, the senate, or the legislature to intervene, why should that organ not have every right afforded the original parties to the case? There is some power to that argument, but Bethune-Hill rejected the idea that state-court precedent authorizing a legislative intervenor to participate in an appeal would suffice to meet the jurisdictional prerequisites for a legislative intervenor to prosecute an appeal in federal court. See slip op. at 5-6 (discussing Vesiland v. Virginia State Bd. of Elections, 295 Va. 427, 813 S.E.2d 739 (2018)).

Where does this leave legislative intervention in Wisconsin? It depends on whether the case is proceeding in state or federal court. In a state-court proceeding—where, in contrast to federal court, standing requirements are both less stringent and not jurisdictional in nature—a legislative intervenor may well be able to argue that it has the same procedural rights as an original party, including the right to appeal an adverse ruling, even if the Attorney General or some other State actor opts not to appeal. (What happens if and when both houses of the Legislature intervene and advocate opposing positions is a question that perhaps a court will need to determine at some point in the future.)

In federal court, however, legislative intervenors may find that Bethune-Hill poses a greater obstacle. As the Bethune-Hill majority explains, “intervenor status alone is insufficient to establish standing to appeal” in federal court. Slip op. at 10. Wisconsin’s intervention laws do not appear to give legislative intervenors a strong basis to argue that, as a general matter, they have legal authority to represent the State. There may be specific suits in which legislative actors have stronger claims to appeal, either because they were named parties from the outset or because they have clearer legal authority to speak for the State on the issue under dispute.

Notably, would-be legislative intervenors may run into problems in federal court even before they wish to appeal. Intervention in federal court is governed by federal law, not state statute. See 28 U.S.C. § 2403(b); Fed. R. Civ. P. 24. Though Wis. Stat. § 803.09(2m) purports to authorize the assembly, senate, or legislature to intervene “in state or federal court   … at any time … as a matter of right,” federal courts may not open their doors on that basis alone. Indeed, the Legislature has already been denied intervention in one federal case. See Planned Parenthood of Wis., Inc. v. Kaul, No. 19-cv-038-wmc (W.D. Wis. Apr. 22, 2019). The Wisconsin Legislature may find that federal courts look askance at its efforts to intervene, just as the Bethune-Hill Court did at the Virginia House’s effort to appeal.

Filed Under: SCOTUS

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