Four Members of Congress Sue To Declare Filibuster Unconstitutional

Rep. John Lewis (D-GA)

Four Members of Congress, Reps. John Lewis, (D-GA), Michael Michaud, (D-ME), Hank Johnson, (D-GA), and Keith Ellison, (D-MN) filed a lawsuit yesterday claiming that the filibuster is unconstitutional and must be blocked by federal courts. According to their complaint, the Constitution specifically lists only a handful of instances where a supermajority is required for Congress to act, and this list precludes such a requirement from being applied in other cases:

In the end, the Constitution proscribed six instances in which Congress would require more than a majority vote: impeaching the president, expelling members, overriding a presidential veto of a bill or order, ratifying treaties and amending the Constitution. . . . “The Framers were aware of the established rule of construction, expressio unius est exclusio alterius, and that by adopting these six exceptions to the principle of majority rule, they were excluding other exceptions.” By contrast, in the Bill of Rights, the Founders were careful to state that “the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

As a textual matter, this is a strong constitutional argument. Yet it is likely not to get off the ground because of something known as the “political question doctrine.” As the Supreme Court explained in Baker v. Carr, federal courts generally should avoid deciding questions where there is a “textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department” — meaning that the Constitution’s text suggests that an issue should be decided by the executive or legislative branch and not by the judiciary. Because the Constitution provides that “[e]ach House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings,” the courts are likely — although not entirely certain — to dismiss this case because the Constitution reserves questions of Senate procedure to the Senate itself.

In other words, this lawsuit is likely to highlight why it is so important for the Senate itself to reform the filibuster to prevent the minority from shutting down America’s ability to effectively govern itself. And the Senate will have an opportunity to do so in about seven months. Once every two years, when the newly elected senators are sworn in, a brief window opens up when the Senate can reform its rules with only 51 votes.