The Supreme Court on Monday affirmed an earlier ruling that D.C. is not constitutionally entitled to voting representation in Congress, deflating hopes among some advocates that they could secure representation for District residents through the courts rather than through legislation.
The ruling has little bearing on the ongoing fight for D.C. statehood, however, and does not preclude Congress from passing a law that would grant the District a vote in the national legislature. The ruling only affirms the finding, by a three-judge panel made up of federal judges in D.C., that Congress is not constitutionally required to do so.
“We had good arguments. And the court has stuck to its guns that because you’re not a state, you’re not constitutionally entitled to the vote,” said Walter Smith, executive director of the D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, who was involved in both the 2000 case and this suit. “That doesn’t mean we can’t go to Congress and ask Congress … to give us the vote.”
Exasperated by Congress’s inaction on the issue, a group of D.C. residents had sued the Trump administration and congressional leadership in 2018, arguing that Congress’s failure to give federal voting rights to the capital city amounted to an equal protection violation and a violation of the First Amendment, among other things.
Lawyers took pains to distinguish their legal arguments from the lawsuit that failed in 2000 — Adams v. Clinton — in which advocates unsuccessfully argued that D.C. should be considered a state for the purpose of congressional representation. This time, lawyers took a new approach, arguing that D.C. residents were entitled to representation even though D.C. is not a state.
They cited laws that have entitled residents of other federal enclaves or U.S. citizens living overseas to vote even though they do not currently reside in states, saying the same logic should apply to residents of D.C.
Christopher Wright, the attorney who represented the D.C. residents who brought the suit, said he wished the court had issued a full opinion explaining the justices’ reasoning for rejecting that argument. “No one has satisfactorily explained why Americans who live overseas may continue to vote for senators and members of Congress in the states from which they moved, even if that state does not consider them to be state residents — but an American who moves to their nation’s capital loses their voting representation in Congress entirely,” he said.
The judges who initially ruled on the lawsuit split it into two separate issues, and the portion that the Supreme Court opined on was specifically about the District’s right to representation in the House of Representatives. A judge is still hearing arguments on the second part of the case, about representation in the Senate. But Smith said he saw no reason to expect a different result.
Smith was heartened, however, that the ruling the Supreme Court affirmed mentioned that Congress could legally grant voting rights to D.C., even though it is not constitutionally required to.
Patrice Snow, a leader of the statehood advocacy organization DC Vote, said she views the court’s decision not as a setback for the D.C. statehood movement but as an indicator that legislation, not legal battles, remains the best path for the movement.
“We’ve used the legislative process 37 times to expand the original colonies into states, so we must do it again for Washington, D.C.,” she said.
A bill granting statehood to the District has passed the House last year and this year, but has not advanced in the Senate.