A Futile Suit Against the Filibuster

Yesterday Common Cause and several members of Congress filed suit to challenge the constitutionality of the filibuster. According to various reports, the suit is largely based upon the theory outliend in this article by litigator Emmet Bondurant, which maintains that the filibuster is a historical accident and violates the constitutional principle of majority rule. Where the Framers wanted a super-majority requirement for legislative action, they wrote such requirements into the Constitution. Further, Bondurant argues, the filibuster is entrenched in the Senate rules and must therefore be challenged in court.

Ezra Klein thinks Bondurant makes a “strong case.” I don’t, and I don’t think this suit will go anywhere. The first obstacle is standing. The failure of the Senate to pass a bill is not a legally cognizable injury, even if that bill appears to have majority support. The second obstacle is the political question doctrine. This obstacle is particularly large given that the Constitution expressly gives each house of Congress the power to set its own rules, so there is a textual commitment of this question to a coordinate branch. All of the cases upon which Bondurant relies to establish justiciability involved challenges to legislation or other acts that passed Congress and altered pre-existing rights and obligations, so they offer little support for Common Cause’s claims. Even were a court to get beyond these justiciability concerns, the suit would likely fail on the merits. If the Constitution authorizes the Senate to set its own rules, there’s no reason why the Senate cannot opt to include supermajority rules in its procedures.

The problems with this legal challenge are further magnified by Common Cause’s decision to challenge the use of the filibuster to block substantive legislation. The argument that the use of filibusters violates some unstated-albeit-enforceable constitutional norm is stronger with regard to items on the executive calendar (such as nominations) than it is with legislation. One could argue that the Senate’s obligation to “advise and consent” presumes an obligation to act — specifically, an obligation to hold an up-or-down vote — and that the filibuster prevents the Senate from fulfilling this duty. It is much harder to argue that the Senate must hold follow rules that allow for substantive votes on legislation. While it’s likely a challenge to nomination filibusters would also be found non-justiciable, it is more plausible than the claim Common Cause filed.

I’m sympathetic to the view that the filibuster is overused, particularly for nominations, but quite skeptical of any lawsuit claiming the filibuster is unconstitutional.

UPDATE: Common Cause’s Bob Edgar explains the suit here. Ian Millhiser likes the argument but doesn’t think the suit is justiciable. Gergory Koger is more circumspect.