Friday, October 17, 2008

Supreme Court Sides With State in Ohio Voter Case -- But Is This Really a "Victory"?

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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Anonymous said...

Just for the record, this court is unanimously Republican. If they could've helped the party that finances their elections they would have, but their hands were tied by other precedents they've made.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Although I am not sure of the Justices' exact party affiliation, I doubt that they are all registered Republicans. Certainly they are not all conservative -- and thus were not trapped into the ruling by precedent. Currently, 4 of the justices are reliably conservative (Roberts, Alito, Scalia and Thomas) and four are reliably liberal (Stevens, Breyer, Ginsburg, and Souter). Kennedy is the only "moderate," but he is a right-leaning moderate. Ginsburg litigated gender equality cases for the ACLU before she became a judge and authored one of the most passionate dissents of her career in the partial-birth abortion ruling (that should give you an idea about her politics).

Anonymous said...

For Scalia to author the majority opinion on this is telling. But most surprising is the citation of the racist case law in Alabama.

This decision goes to show how strongly the concervativs are willing to go to defend their extreme ideologies on race, past racism and cover up their unforgivable mistakes.

If Antonion Scalia will let a golden opportunity to select yet another GOP president, slide by, for the sake of upholding one of the most eggregious racism laws, he is a strange man indeed.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Hi. I hope the summary on RCP was not misleading. Scalia wrote the Alabama case cited in this ruling. This ruling (Ohio) had no individual author. It was a "per curiam" decision -- issued by the court as a whole. But the ruling relies exclusively upon precedent that Scalia and Rehnquist wrote. Those cases prevented private lawsuits enforcing federal law on the grounds that the statute did not create an individual right to sue. One case was a race/national origin suit, and the other one was a student privacy case.

Absent a private right of action, enforcement of federal becomes more difficult. Only the Justice Department could bring an action - which is far less efficient for the government. Another option -- civil rights groups could try to get Congress to amend the statutes, but we know how difficult that is.

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