The tight election contest in Ohio took another turn today, when the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a temporary restraining order that required the state to produce a list of new voter registrants whose registration materials contain personal information that conflicts with data maintained in other state databases. The now-vacated order compelled the state to produce the data today.
The litigation centers around the "Help America Vote Act," which provides, in part, that state voting officials match information in voter registration files with information in motor vehicle databases in order to ensure the accuracy of voter lists. The Court's ruling, however, does not decide whether or not Ohio has in fact violated the federal statute. Instead, the Court concluded that regardless of the legality of the state's policy, it was unlikely that the Republican Party could prevail on its argument that the statute authorizes lawsuits by private individuals to enforce its terms. Technically, this is a procedural ruling that simply removes the temporary restraining order. So, the case could resume in the lower court, and the parties could submit more legal arguments on the question of a private right of action, but none of the news articles on this matter indicates what the parties will choose to do.
"Victory" for Democrats Based on Conservative Case Law
Ironically, the Court's ruling relies upon highly criticized conservative case law in which the Court curbed access to the courts by civil rights plaintiffs. One of the cases involved a challenge to an Alabama law establishing an "English-Only" policy for driver's license testing. The Court held that even if the policy has a negative impact on Latinos, only the federal government could bring a suit challenging the law as national origin or racial discrimination due to its detrimental effect. The case -- Alexander v. Sandoval -- was authored by Justice Antonin Scalia, whom liberals despise. The late Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote the other opinion (Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe).
Consequently, I have mixed feelings about the ruling. On the one hand, Republicans can now taste the impact of their efforts to curb "excessive" litigation (translation: any civil rights litigation or personal injury suits). But I really do not want to validate those precedents, especially in the area of voting rights. Although the Democrats won this round, they do so by legitimating conservative Court doctrine.
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