|Here y'ar, Peter. MCPHERSON v. BLACKER, 146 U.S. 1 (1892) |
Peter Suzman posts, "This case is so famous and widely discussed that it is not among the approximately 2500 cases referenced in my old Constitutional Law textbook. <g>"
Reading the U.S. Supreme Court decision in McPherson v. Blacker will rudely shake the belief system of anyone who thinks the American political system rests on firm democratic foundations which value the votes of the people.
In 1891 the Michigan legislature changed state law pertaining to the election of Presidential Electors. In effect, Michigan abandoned its previous practice and split the Electors into separate districts. A slate of presidential electors sued, arguing the new state law violated the U.S. Constitution in several regards and asking the state court to order the Michigan secretary of state to revise the ballot so all Electors would be elected at large, as had been Michigan custom.
The state supreme court dismissed the case. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the state supreme court, holding that the state legislature was free under the federal constitution to change the method of selecting Electors. The opinion was written by Chief Justice Fuller in his characteristically impenetrable, opaque, and verbose style.
In upholding the state court decision, Fuller discussed at length the origins of the Electoral College provisions, the alternatives considered, and varying state practices in electing Presidential Electors both before adoption of the Constitution and since. In one key passage, Fuller quotes a then-recent U.S. Senate study of the history of the Electoral College done to lay a predicate for proposed amendment to the Constitution. (Not all contemporary historians agree that the Senate got the history right). Fuller's lengthy quote from the Senate study contains the kernel of what the McPherson case has come to stand for:
"In this report," writes Chief Justice Fuller, "it was said: 'The appointment of these electors is thus placed absolutely and wholly with the legislatures of the several states. They may be chosen by the legislature, or the legislature may provide that they shall be elected by the people of the state at large, or in districts, as are members of congress, which was the case formerly in many states; and it is not [sic] doubt competent for the legislature to authorize the governor, or the [146 U.S. 1, 35] supreme court of the state, or any other agent of its will, to appoint these electors. This power is conferred upon the legislatures of the states by the constitution of the United States, and cannot be taken from them or modified by their state constitutions any more than can their power to elect senators of the United States. Whatever provisions may be made by statute, or by the state constitution, to choose electors by the people, there is no doubt of the right of the legislature to resume the power at any time, for it can neither be taken away nor abdicated.' Senate Rep. 1st Sess. 43d Cong. No. 395."