Hasen on the “Purcell Principle”: Supreme Court Needs to Think Harder About Stays in Election Cases – and Explain Itself

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[Image courtesy of law.uci.edu]

The 2014 election cycle saw a continuation of the legal battles between the parties on election laws, battles that extended almost right up to Election Day, to the chagrin of many, including me.

Barely two months later, Rick Hasen of UC-Irvine Law School and the indispensable Election Law Blog has released a draft of a paper, “Reining in the Purcell Principle”, looking back at the U.S. Supreme Court’s role during that last-minute crush (chaos?). Here’s the abstract:

About a month before the 2014 election, the United States Supreme Court issued a series of four extraordinary orders in election law cases. Without any explanation, the Court: stayed a district court order which would have required Ohio to restore extra days of early voting; stayed a Fourth Circuit order (partially reversing a district court) which would have restored same day voter registration and the counting of certain provisional ballots in North Carolina; vacated a Seventh Circuit stay of a district court order barring Wisconsin from implementing its new strict voter identification law; and refused to vacate a Fifth Circuit stay of a district court order which would have barred Texas from continuing to use its new strict voter identification law. The district court, after a trial on the merits, had declared Texas’s law unconstitutional and in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

The orders appeared contradictory, for example by allowing strict voter identification requirements to be used on Election Day 2014 in Texas but not Wisconsin. But the apparent common thread was the Supreme Court’s application of “the Purcell principle:” the idea that courts should not issue orders which change election rules in the period just before the election. This idea has appeared in earlier Supreme Court cases, most prominently in Purcell v. Gonzalez, a 2006 short per curiam case in which the Court vacated a Ninth Circuit injunction which had temporarily blocked use of Arizona’s strict new voter identification law. In this symposium Article, I argue the Supreme Court should rein in the Purcell principle. Certainly the potential for voter confusion and electoral chaos raise a strong public interest argument against last minute changes in election rules. But under normal Supreme Court remedial standards for considering stays and injunctions, the effect of a court order on the public interest is only one factor to consider. Although the precise test the Court uses in these emergency situations is somewhat fluid and uncertain, there is no doubt that ordinarily the Court considers the likelihood of success on the merits and relative hardship to the parties as two crucial factors in deciding whether to grant or vacate a stay or impose an injunction. By making the Purcell principle paramount, the Court runs the risk of issuing orders which can disenfranchise voters or impose significant burdens on election administrators for no good reason. Had the Court applied all the ordinary appropriate factors for emergency relief to the four 2014 election cases, in addition to special concerns attendant in election cases, there is a strong argument it would have reached a different decision in at least the Texas case and potentially in the North Carolina case.

Part I of this Article explains the tests the Court applies in considering emergency stays and related orders, arguing that the Purcell principle should properly be understood not as a stand-alone rule but instead as relevant to one of the factors (the public interest) the Court usually considers. Part II applies the proper standards to the four 2014 emergency election cases considered by the Supreme Court, arguing that the Court got it wrong in at least the Texas case and possibly in the North Carolina case. Part III briefly argues that, regardless of whether the Supreme Court agrees with this call to rein in the Purcell principle, the Court should issue opinions, even weeks or months after the Court acts in an emergency elections case, explaining its reasoning. Such opinions would provide valuable guidance to lower courts considering election cases and help legitimize the Court’s actions by making them more transparent. It also might discipline the Justices to decide controversial cases more consistently.

Hasen’s second point – that the Court should explain itself eventually in election law cases, even if opinions are not possible right away – is the most important part of the article, in my opinion. I’m already on record decrying the growing tendency to crowd Election Day with litigation, but if it has to happen I would hope that the Court would least be willing to offer some guidance on election changes in order to avoid future last-minute litigation.

That said, I’m sticking to my story that we need to find a way to keep election legal disputes away from Election Day – but until we do, I suspect that Rick’s article will be a seminal source in the ongoing search for clarity on an otherwise opaque subject. I highly recommend it to lawyers and non-lawyers alike.

Thanks, Rick!

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