[Image via wikimedia]
Yesterday, Judge Richard Leon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia denied a request for a preliminary injunction in League of Women Voters et al v. Newby, the case challenging the decision to add proof-of-citizenship instructions for three states (Alabama, Georgia and Kansas) to the federal voter registration form. The groups filed suit in February, seeking to block and overturn those changes to the federal form. Things got interesting when the U.S. Department of Justice declined to defend the EAC and sided with plaintiffs, resulting in the Kansas Secretary of State and the conservative Public Interest Legal Foundation to join as defendant-intervenors to defend the provision.
In a 25-page opinion issued yesterday, Judge Leon refused to grant plaintiffs the relief they sought. Here’s what he found in more detail:
The plaintiffs from state Leagues are likely to have standing to sue. While Judge Leon was somewhat skeptical about the effect of the change on plaintiffs in Alabama and Georgia, given that proof-of-citizenship is not currently being enforced there, he nonetheless found that the Leagues of Women Voters from all three states likely had standing to sue. He also noted that the merits of the individual state proof-of-citizenship requirements (or its application in non-federal elections) was not at issue but agreed that the new instructions did mean that the Leagues would have to assist individuals with understanding and complying with proof-of-citizenship as it applied to the federal form. [pp. 13-18]
EAC Executive Director Brian Newby’s actions are subject to judicial review. Defendant-intervenors had argued that Newby’s approval of the state proof-of-citizenship instructions was merely a “general statement of policy” and did not constitute a “final action” under the law eligible to be challenged in court. The court disagreed, finding that
- Newby’s actions “clearly ended any decisionmaking process at the EAC” about proof of citizenship requirements on the federal form;
- Kansas promptly began enforcing its requirements in response to the action; and
- The prospect that the decision could be reviewed by Commissioners did not make it “non final.”
The court also rejected defendant-intervenors’ arguments that plaintiffs should have first appealed the decision to the EAC Commissioners, saying that no such “administrative exhaustion” requirements existed in this case. [pp. 18-20]
Plaintiffs were not irreparably harmed and therefore cannot obtain an injunction. Standing and reviewability aside, however, Judge Leon found that the plaintiffs were not “irreparably harmed” and therefore could not make the necessary showing to obtain an injunction. In particular,
The modification of the Federal Form to include the state-specific documentation of citizenship requirements, although an inconvenience, in no way precludes the organization plaintiffs and their members from conducting their core activities of encouraging civic participation in both state and federal elections and educating the public about the requirements for registering to vote in each. [p. 21] [emphasis in original]
The judge did concede that plaintiffs would need to explain the new requirements to voters, but noted that it “pales in comparison” to the difficulty in explaining how the ACA or tax code works. [pp. 22-23]
The judge was skeptical of the breadth of the relief sought. The request in this case was not merely to block enforcement of the new instructions, but rather to void the change, rescind the letters to states and revise the federal form. While not finding that harm to plaintiffs justified any relief, the judge noted that this request was not really appropriate for an injunction but was rather “a thinly veiled request for the relief normally accorded in a final judgment.” [p. 24.] He was also mindful of DOJ’s unusual stance here – refusing to defend the EAC and actively siding with plaintiffs – and was unwilling to issue an injunction under the circumstances.
This case isn’t over; as Judge Leon notes, he must still rule on the merits of the challenge – namely, the validity of Newby’s actions and state proof-of-citizenship instructions on the federal form. To do so, he must reconcile what he calls the “extremely important competing interests” of state versus federal authority over election rules, and he says he will do so in considering the motions to dispose of the case in the “weeks ahead.” [pp. 24-25]
Obviously, all eyes are on this case – and not just in the affected states. It’ll be interesting to see how, if at all, developments in Kansas (and court rulings there about proof-of-citizenship) affect this dispute. It’s the current key battlefront in the tension between state and federal control over elections.
Stay tuned …