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Igartua v. Obama

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

November 23, 2016

GREGORIO IGARTUA, et al., Plaintiffs, Appellants,
v.
BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America; PENNY PRITZKER, Secretary of Commerce; KAREN L. HAAS, Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, Defendants, Appellees.

         APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO [Hon. Jay A. García-Gregory, U.S. District Judge]

          Gregorio Igartúa for appellants.

          Mark R. Freeman, Attorney, Appellate Staff, Civil Division, U.S. Department of Justice, with whom Benjamin C. Mizer, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Carmen M. Ortiz, United States Attorney, and Matthew M. Collette, Attorney, Appellate Staff, Civil Division, U.S. Department of Justice, were on brief for appellees.

          Before Torruella, Lipez, and Thompson, Circuit Judges.

          LIPEZ, Circuit Judge.

         Plaintiff Gregorio Igartúa, a U.S. citizen-resident of Puerto Rico, returns to this court for the fifth time in search of a legal remedy for his claim that he has a constitutional right to vote in certain federal elections. Here, for the second time, Igartúa and his fellow plaintiffs specifically challenge the denial of the right of Puerto Rico citizens to vote for representatives to the U.S. House of Representatives and their right to have five Puerto Rico representatives apportioned to that body. Plaintiffs also assert that the district court again erred in refusing to convene a three-judge court to adjudicate their claims.

         When Igartúa first raised the issue of congressional representation in 2010, a panel majority disposed of the three-judge-court issue in a footnote. On the merits, it concluded that we were bound by past circuit decisions to find that "the Constitution does not permit granting such a right to the plaintiffs by means other than those specified for achieving statehood or by amendment." Igartúa v. United States ("Igartúa IV"), 626 F.3d 592, 594, 598 n.6 (1st Cir. 2010), en banc review denied, 654 F.3d 99 (1st Cir. 2011), cert. denied, 132 S.Ct. 2376 (2012). As we explain in Section I below, we again find ourselves bound by circuit precedent, and we thus must affirm the judgment of the district court refusing to convene a three-judge court and dismissing the case on the merits.

         In so doing, however, we emphasize that we now doubt the correctness of the brief, yet controlling, footnote in Igartúa IV rejecting the call for a three-judge court. See 626 F.3d at 598 n.6.[1] Moreover, if our court were now to conclude, in an en banc proceeding, that a three-judge panel should have been convened to hear the constitutional claims addressed in Igartúa IV, the merits ruling in Igartúa IV would be void. See infra. Hence, though we as a panel must follow Igartúa IV, the three-judge-court issue is one of substantial importance that should be reconsidered by the full court in an en banc rehearing of this case.

         I. The Instant Appeal

         In all material respects, this action is a reprise of Igartúa IV. As the district court noted, "Plaintiffs' arguments in the Complaint at bar are nearly identical to the ones raised in Igartúa IV." Igartúa v. United States, No. 3:14-cv-01558-JAG, slip op. at 2 (D.P.R. Jan. 28, 2015). In addition, the parties in the two cases largely overlap. Four of the six plaintiffs here were plaintiffs in Igartúa IV. The defendants in Igartúa IV were the President of the United States, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, and the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives -- the same defendants as here.

         The legal rulings made in Igartúa IV are thus binding on most of the parties in this action under principles of res judicata, see Haag v. United States, 589 F.3d 43, 45 (1st Cir. 2009), and, in any event, the doctrine of stare decisis bars us, as a panel, from reaching a different conclusion on the same questions of law, see United States v. González-Mercado, 402 F.3d 294, 299 (1st Cir. 2005) ("We have heard and rejected this argument before. Under the doctrine of stare decisis, then, the issue is foreclosed." (citations omitted)); see also United States v. Mouscardy, 722 F.3d 68, 77 (1st Cir. 2013) (noting that an earlier panel decision binds a later panel under "[t]he law of the circuit doctrine").

         Hence, because we are not at liberty to depart from the dispositive holdings in Igartúa IV, we must affirm the judgment of the district court granting defendants' motion to dismiss.[2] However, having closely examined the pertinent law, we are persuaded that a summary affirmance should not properly, or fairly, be the end of the case.

         II. The Three-Judge-Court Requirement

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 2284(a), "[a] district court of three judges shall be convened . . . when an action is filed challenging the constitutionality of the apportionment of congressional districts." Accordingly, when the district court judge originally assigned to a case determines that one or more of the plaintiff's claims warrants a three-judge court, the judge must take the steps necessary to convene a three-judge panel. See 28 U.S.C. § 2284(b); see also Shapiro v. McManus, 136 S.Ct. 450, 454 (2015). The three-judge court's ruling on the merits of such claims is appealable only to the U.S. Supreme Court. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1253, 1291; Idlewild Bon Voyage Liquor Corp. v. Epstein, 370 U.S. 713, 715-16 (1962). Hence, when a three-judge court is properly convened to hear claims within the scope of § 2284(a), the court of appeals does not play a role in resolving the merits. See Idlewild Bon Voyage Liquor Corp., 370 U.S. at 715-16 (noting that a court of appeals is "precluded from reviewing on the merits a case which should have originally been determined by a court of three judges").

         If a case is brought improperly to the court of appeals -- because the district court erroneously refused to convene a three-judge court -- any subsequent merits ruling by the appellate panel is void. See Stratton v. St. Louis Sw. Ry. Co., 282 U.S. 10, 16 (1930) ("Nor does an appeal [on the merits] lie to the Circuit Court of Appeals from an order or decree thus entered by a District Judge without authority, for to sustain a review upon such an appeal would defeat the purpose of the statute by substituting a decree by a single judge and an appeal to the Circuit Court of Appeals for a decree by three judges and a direct appeal to th[e] [Supreme] Court.").[3]

         Thus, if a three-judge district court should have been convened to address the constitutional claims asserted in Igartúa IV, our rejection of Igartúa's claims on the merits in that case would have no precedential force here. The three-judge-court question in Igartúa IV was therefore of great consequence -- affecting our very authority to hear the case.[4] Yet, the issue was decided with the following footnote:

We also reject the argument made by Igartúa, but not made by the government, that this case must be heard by a three-judge district court under 28 U.S.C. § 2284(a). That statute provides that a "district court of three judges shall be convened when . . . an action is filed challenging the constitutionality of the apportionment of congressional districts." Id. That is not the issue in this case.

Igartúa IV, 626 F.3d at 598 n.6.[5]

         This unelaborated assertion belies the complexity of Igartúa's contention that he is entitled to have his claims heard by a three-judge district court. Moreover, there is reason to doubt the correctness of the footnote's rejection of the applicability of § 2284(a). To demonstrate the need to revisit our cursory holding, we review below the issues that determine whether a three-judge court must be convened. We first consider whether § 2284(a) in fact covers the type of claim raised by Igartúa and then examine the requirement of a "substantial federal question." See Shapiro, 136 S.Ct. at 455.

         A. Scope of the Three-Judge-Court Statute

         The three-judge-court statute applies to a claim "challenging the constitutionality of the apportionment of congressional districts." 28 U.S.C. § 2284(a) (emphasis added). As recounted above, in footnote 6 in Igartúa IV, we stated simply: "That is not the issue in this case." We understand that cryptic comment to mean that the statute does not cover Igartúa's claims because Igartúa challenges Congress's failure to include Puerto Rico within its apportionment of districts instead of attacking a specific apportionment of districts. Supreme Court precedent, however, supports a broader view of the statute.

         In 1998, Lois Adams and other residents of the District of Columbia filed a complaint in federal district court alleging that "Congress has unconstitutionally excluded them from apportionment to a congressional district, " in violation of Article IV's Guarantee Clause[6] and the Fourteenth Amendment. Adams v. Clinton, 26 F.Supp.2d 156, 157-58 (D.D.C. 1998). Adams and her co-plaintiffs requested that the case be heard by a three-judge district court under § 2284(a). Id. Over the objections of the defendants -- including the President of the United States and officers of the U.S. House of Representatives -- the district judge concluded that Adams' nonapportionment claims were covered by § 2284(a) and asked the chief judge of the district to convene a three-judge district court to hear the case. Id. at 161.

         In deciding the case, a majority of the three-judge panel noted that "[t]he parties have not asked us to revisit the original judge's determination that this case falls within the confines of the three-judge court statute, and we will not do so insofar as the complaints allege the failure to apportion members of the House of Representatives to the District." Adams v. Clinton, 90 F.Supp.2d 35, 38 (D.D.C. 2000) (three-judge court). The majority concluded that the plaintiffs had standing, but then went on to grant the defendants' motions to dismiss on the merits.[7] Id. at 45, 72.

         Adams appealed the decision of the three-judge court directly to the Supreme Court, see 28 U.S.C. § 1253, insisting, inter alia, that the case was properly before a three-judge court under § 2284(a). See Jurisdictional Statement at *21-30, Adams v. Clinton, 531 U.S. 941 (2000) (No. 00-97), 2000 WL 33999989. In response, the government filed a "Motion to Dismiss or Affirm." Motion to Dismiss or Affirm, Adams, 531 U.S. 941 (No. 00-97). In the opening paragraph of the Argument section of its motion, the government asked the Court to dismiss the appeal either because the "three-judge district court lacked jurisdiction over appellants' claim" or because "appellants lack standing to seek the relief that they have requested from any federal court." Id. at 9. In the alternative, the government asked the Court to "affirm the judgment of the three-judge court because appellants' constitutional claim lacks merit." Id. (emphasis added).[8]

         The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the three-judge district court without explanation. Adamsv.Clinton, 531 U.S. 941 (2000) ("Judgment affirmed."). The Court also noted that "Justice STEVENS would dismiss the appeal." Id. Given the government's arguments distinguishing between dismissal and affirmance, and Justice Stevens' position that dismissal -- rather than affirmance -- was appropriate, the Court's decision to affirm appears to signify a determination that the three-judge court was properly convened for Adams' nonapportionment claim. Indeed, the Court has previously held that where a "three-judge court was . . . improperly convened, . . . this Court does not have jurisdiction ...


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