Legal Challenge to Senate Filibuster Tossed by U.S. Judge

A challenge to the U.S. Senate’s filibuster rule was rejected by a federal judge, who said the plaintiffs had no legal right to bring the case and that courts may not intervene in the workings of Congress.

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington today ruled that the lawsuit, filed by the public interest group Common Cause, members of the House of Representatives and undocumented aliens who would have benefited from passage of the so-called Dream Act, represented an unwarranted intrusion into the Senate’s right operate as it sees fit,

“The court finds that reaching the merits of this case would require an invasion into internal Senate processes at the heart of the Senate’s constitutional prerogatives as a House of Congress, and would thus express a lack of respect for the Senate as a coordinate branch of government,” Sullivan said in a 47-page opinion.

Sullivan’s decision didn’t address the suit’s central claim that the rule requiring 60 votes to shut down debate on a bill is an unconstitutional abuse of the Senate’s power to make its own rules, Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause, said in a telephone interview.

“We’re going to appeal,” Boyle said. “You have a minority that is controlling everything and blocking a lot of progress.”

Majority Rule

Common Cause filed its complaint in May, contending that the 60-vote requirement to stop a filibuster conflicts with the simple majority of 51 votes needed to pass most legislation.

Other plaintiffs include four Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives: John Lewis, of Georgia; Michael Michaud, of Maine; Hank Johnson, of Georgia; and Keith Ellison, of Minnesota; and three Mexican-born U.S. residents who alleged they were denied the benefits of immigration law changes in the House-passed Dream Act because it was blocked by Senate filibuster.

Neither the U.S. resident plaintiffs nor Common Cause have standing to sue because they couldn’t demonstrate that the court could do anything to repair the alleged harm they suffered, Sullivan said in his ruling.

Sullivan also said that the Senate’s right to make its own rules trumped House member plaintiffs claims that they were harmed by filibusters of legislation they had voted for.

The suit was filed against Vice President Joseph Biden in his capacity as Senate President, and other Senate officers.

The case is Common Cause v. Biden, 12-cv-775, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Washington).

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Zajac in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at

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