Justia Election Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
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The Fourth Circuit declined to enjoin the North Carolina State Board of Elections's extension of its deadline for the receipt of absentee ballots for the ongoing general election. The court explained that the only issue it must address now is plaintiffs' request for an emergency injunction pending appeal regarding a single aspect of the procedures that the district court below refused to enjoin: an extension of the deadline for the receipt of mail-in ballots. The court explained that the change is simply an extension from three to nine days after Election Day for a timely ballot to be received and counted.Because plaintiffs have not established a likelihood of success on the merits of their equal protection claim—and because, in any event, Purcell v. Gonzalez, 549 U.S. 1 (2006), and Andino v. Middleton, No. 20A55, 2020 WL 5887393 (U.S. Oct. 5, 2020), require that the court not intervene at this late stage—the court declined to enter an injunction pending appeal. The court also held that plaintiffs lack standing to raise their Elections Clause challenge. Even if they did not lack standing, the Pullman abstention doctrine strongly counsels the court against exercising jurisdiction over that claim. The court further held that all suggestions from the state courts point to the conclusion that the Board properly exercised its legislative delegation of authority, and there is no irreparable harm from a ballot extension. Finally, the balance of the equities is influenced heavily by Purcell and tilts against federal court intervention at this late stage, and Andino establishes that the appropriate status-quo framework is the status quo created by the state's actions, not by later federal court interventions. View "Wise v. Circosta" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court's order denying Proposed Intervenors' renewed motion to intervene in an action brought by the NAACP challenging the validity of Senate Bill 824. S.B. 824 established, inter alia, photographic voter identification requirements for elections in North Carolina.After determining that it has jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. 1291, the court held that the Proposed Intervenors have Article III standing to intervene for the purposes of intervention before the district court based on N.C. Gen Stat. 1-72.2 and Supreme Court precedent. The court rejected the arguments of the NAACP and the State Defendants that section 1-72.2 infringes on the powers of the Executive Branch in violation of the North Carolina Constitution's separation of powers provisions.In regard to intervention as a matter of right, the court held that the district court erred in determining that the Proposed Intervenors lacked a sufficient interest in the S.B. 824 litigation without careful consideration of section 1-72.2(a). Therefore, the court remanded for the district court to more fully consider the North Carolina statute in the analysis of the Proposed Intervenors' interest in the litigation. Because the Proposed Intervenors may have interests which may be practically impaired if not permitted to intervene in the action before the district court, the court remanded as to this issue as well. The court further stated that, although it was appropriate for the district court to apply the Westinghouse presumption since the Proposed Intervenors and the State Defendants appear to seek the same ultimate objective, the district court erred in demanding that the Proposed Intervenors overcome that presumption by the heightened standard of a "strong showing." In regard to permissive intervention, the court held that the district court failed to address sections 1-72.2(a) and (b) and 120-32.6. Given the import of those statutes, the court remanded for consideration of the permissive intervention request. View "North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP v. Berger" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of an action challenging the "winner-take-all" aspect of South Carolina's process for appointing its nine Electors to the Electoral College.After determining that it has subject matter jurisdiction to address the merits of the appeal, the court held that the winner-take-all process does not violate the Equal Protection Clause, because it does not treat any particular group of voters in the State differently; the winner-take-all process does not violate plaintiffs' First and Fourteenth Amendment rights because it does not burden plaintiffs' right to freedom of association; and the winner-take-all process does not violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. In this case, while plaintiffs allege that Black voters in South Carolina are a minority group sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district, the court stated that they fail to address what this means in the context of a statewide election. View "Baten v. McMaster" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs, two unaffiliated candidates and one voter seeking to cast votes for write-in candidates, filed suit alleging that North Carolina's qualification requirements for candidates not affiliated with a political party and for candidates whose names are not printed on the ballot violate their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.The Fourth Circuit held that plaintiffs lack standing to challenge the requirement that an unaffiliated candidate be a "qualified voter" and that a write-in candidate submit a certain number of signatures before votes cast for that write-in candidate will be counted. Furthermore, although two plaintiffs have standing to challenge North Carolina's signature requirements and filing deadline for unaffiliated candidates, the court agreed with the district court that these election laws impose only a modest burden that is justified by the state's interest in regulating elections. Therefore, the court affirmed the district court's dismissal of plaintiffs' claims, relying in part on different reasons than those expressed by the district court. View "Buscemi v. Bell" on Justia Law

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In this gerrymandering action, brought exclusively under the North Carolina Constitution against certain state legislators, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court did not err in remanding because the Legislative Defendants do not have an enforcement role within the meaning of the Refusal Clause of 28 U.S.C. 1443(2). Consequently, the court need not address whether the Legislative Defendants refused to act or whether they asserted a colorable conflict with federal law. The court also held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in declining to award fees and costs, because the legislators removed within the statutorily mandated time limit and adhered to the district court's expedited briefing schedule. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court's judgment. View "Common Cause v. Lewis" on Justia Law

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A Maryland law requiring newspapers, among other platforms, to publish on their websites, as well as retain for state inspection, certain information about the political ads they decide to carry, violates the First amendment. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the preliminary injunctive relief awarded by the district court and explained that, while Maryland's law tries to serve important aims, the state has gone about this task in too circuitous and burdensome a manner to satisfy constitutional scrutiny. The court agreed with the district court that the law is a content-based law that targets political speech and compels newspapers, among other platforms, to carry certain messages on their websites. The court declined to decide whether strict or exacting scrutiny should apply to a disclosure law like the one at issue, and held that the law failed under the more forgiving exact scrutiny standard. View "The Washington Post v. McManus" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court's order denying Citizens' motion for attorney's fees, expert fees, and costs stemming from a 42 U.S.C. 1983 action that successfully challenged a 2015 state law that redrew Greensboro City Council districts. The court held that civil rights fee-shifting statutes, such as those at issue here, are not meant to punish defendants for a lack of innocence or good faith but rather to "compensate civil rights attorneys who bring civil rights cases and win them." The court explained that "innocence" or a "lack of responsibility" for the enactment of an unconstitutional law was therefore not an appropriate criterion to justify denying a fee award against the party responsible for and enjoined from enforcing the unconstitutional law. View "Brandon v. Guilford County Board of Elections" on Justia Law

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Virginia's Incumbent Protection Act, Va. Code Ann. 24.2-509(B), violates the First Amendment of the Constitution. Subsection 24.2-509(B) limits the broad authority recognized by subsection A, which empowers the duly constituted authorities of the state and local parties to determine the method by which a party nomination shall be made.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision to permanently enjoin enforcement of the entire Act. The court agreed with the district court's finding that the fourth sentence of the Act, which protects the nomination prerogatives of incumbent members of Congress among others, violated the First Amendment because it imposed a severe burden on the associational rights of Virginia's political parties and the Commonwealth has been unable to show that it is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.The court also agreed with the district court's decision to enjoin the Act's second and third sentences, which protect the nomination prerogatives of incumbent members of the General Assembly. The court held that the Committee had standing to challenge these provisions and that they were, if anything, even more offensive to the First Amendment than the fourth sentence. View "6th Congressional District Republican Committee v. Alcorn" on Justia Law

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Intervening defendants could not be required to pay a portion of prevailing plaintiffs' attorneys fees and costs, awarded under 42 U.S.C. 1988(b) and 52 U.S.C. 10310(e), when intervening defendants were not charged with any wrongdoing and could not be held liable for the relief that plaintiffs sought. In Independent Federation of Flight Attendants v. Zipes, 491 U.S. 754 (1989), the Supreme Court precluded the assessment of attorneys fees and costs against intervenors who were "blameless," meaning that they were not charged as wrongdoers and legal relief could not have been obtained from them. In this racial gerrymandering case, the Fourth Circuit held that Zipes was controlling and that the Commonwealth could not be held liable for attorneys fees and costs incurred by plaintiffs in litigating against the entry of Intervening Congressmen or against Intervening Congressmen's positions. Under the traditional American rule, plaintiffs must bear those intervention-related fees. Accordingly, the court vacated the district court's order awarding attorneys fees and costs, remanding for reconsideration of plaintiffs' petitions for fees. View "Brat v. Personhuballah" on Justia Law

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Intervening defendants could not be required to pay a portion of prevailing plaintiffs' attorneys fees and costs, awarded under 42 U.S.C. 1988(b) and 52 U.S.C. 10310(e), when intervening defendants were not charged with any wrongdoing and could not be held liable for the relief that plaintiffs sought. In Independent Federation of Flight Attendants v. Zipes, 491 U.S. 754 (1989), the Supreme Court precluded the assessment of attorneys fees and costs against intervenors who were "blameless," meaning that they were not charged as wrongdoers and legal relief could not have been obtained from them. In this racial gerrymandering case, the Fourth Circuit held that Zipes was controlling and that the Commonwealth could not be held liable for attorneys fees and costs incurred by plaintiffs in litigating against the entry of Intervening Congressmen or against Intervening Congressmen's positions. Under the traditional American rule, plaintiffs must bear those intervention-related fees. Accordingly, the court vacated the district court's order awarding attorneys fees and costs, remanding for reconsideration of plaintiffs' petitions for fees. View "Brat v. Personhuballah" on Justia Law