Supreme Court Upholds Constitutional Ban on DC Voting Rights

Supreme Court Upholds Constitutional Ban on DC Voting Rights
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) speaks during a press conference on the House vote on D.C. statehood, in Washington on April 21, 2021. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)
Matthew Vadum

District of Columbia residents aren’t entitled to voting representation in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Supreme Court ruled, affirming a lower court decision.

The ruling came after the House approved legislation in April to make D.C. the 51st state; the bill stalled in the Senate. Democrats support the measure, arguing that all U.S. citizens should be represented in Congress, while Republicans oppose it because they believe the framers of the Constitution didn’t want D.C. to become a state, and because the new state’s two senators would almost certainly be Democrats in the Democratic Party stronghold.

The case is Castañon v. United States, court file 20-1279. The ruling, which summarily affirmed a lower court decision, came on Oct. 4. There were no oral arguments.

In the brief unsigned order, Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch indicated they would dismiss the appeal for lack of jurisdiction. They didn’t elaborate.

In the order, the high court referenced Adams v. Clinton, a decision it handed down in 2000. In that previous decision, the court held the District of Columbia wasn’t a state and therefore wasn’t entitled to representation in Congress under Article I, section 8 of the Constitution.

Referring to the nation’s capital that at the time the Constitution was ratified in 1788 had yet to be created, that provision gave Congress the power “To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of Particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States.”

Although President Joe Biden supports D.C. statehood, his administration urged the Supreme Court “that the appeal be dismissed or, in the alternative, that the district court’s order be affirmed.”
The petitioners, a group of Washington residents led by Angelica Castañon, previously argued in their complaint before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that the continuing denial of the right to vote, which “is fundamental under our Constitution,” “violates the constitutional guarantees of equal protection, due process, and the constitutional right of association.”
In March 2020, a three-judge panel of the District Court ruled against the residents.

“We recognize that District residents’ lack of the congressional franchise is viewed by many, even most, as deeply unjust, and we have given each aspect of Plaintiffs’ claims most serious consideration, but our ruling today is compelled by precedent and by the Constitution itself,” the opinion stated.

However, Washington residents aren’t completely shut out of self-governance. There is an elected District Council that takes care of day-to-day local government matters, subject to the possibility of a joint resolution of disapproval being passed by both houses of Congress, something that rarely happens. The 23rd Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1961, gave the District three votes in the electoral college in presidential elections.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who is a nonvoting member of the House, said she was “disappointed” by the Supreme Court ruling.

But she said in a statement that “the ruling has no bearing on the constitutionality of D.C. statehood, which would give D.C. residents voting representation in the House and Senate and full control over their local affairs. In fact, the three-judge panel expressly referred to statehood as a remedy for D.C. residents.

“In 2016, D.C. residents voted overwhelmingly for statehood, and the House has passed my D.C. statehood bill twice since June 2020. We have record support for D.C. statehood in the Senate, and we have never been closer to statehood.”