In 6-3 Split, Supreme Court Says Arizona Limits Do Not Violate Voting Rights Act

From today’s CNN Online:

The Supreme Court on Thursday said two provisions of an Arizona voting law that restrict how ballots can be cast do not violate the historic Voting Rights Act that bars regulations that result in racial discrimination.

The ruling will limit the ability of minorities to challenge state laws in the future that they say are discriminatory under the Voting Rights Act.

The vote in the case is 6-3 breaking along conservative-liberal ideological lines. Justice Samuel Alito delivered the majority opinion.

The case comes as several Republican-led states, encouraged by former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud, are considering more restrictive laws and Democrats are fighting a frantic battle in courts to combat what President Joe Biden has called an “assault on democracy.”

The court upheld two provisions of the Arizona law. The first provision says in-person ballots cast at the wrong precinct on Election Day must be wholly discarded. Another provision restricts a practice known as “ballot collection,” requiring that only family caregivers, mail carriers and election officials can deliver another person’s completed ballot to a polling place.

“Neither Arizona’s out-of-precinct rule nor its ballot-collection law violates §2 of the VRA,” Alito wrote. “Arizona’s out-of-precinct rule enforces the requirement that voters who choose to vote in person on election day must do so in their assigned precincts. Having to identify one’s own polling place and then travel there to vote does not exceed the “usual burdens of voting.'”

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SCOTUS questions need for restrictive voting laws in Voting Rights Act case

From NBC News Online:

Supreme Court justices asked skeptical questions Tuesday about Arizona election laws in a case that has emerged as an important test of the Voting Rights Act.

The case is about whether two state laws violate Section 2 of the act: One blocks the counting of ballots cast in the wrong precinct, and another prohibits anyone other than a family member or caregiver from collecting and delivering a voter’s absentee ballot.

On one side is the state of Arizona and Republicans, who want to keep the strict laws on the books and argue they prevent fraud. And on the other side are Democrats, who want the laws stricken and argue the rules prevent voters, particularly minorities, from accessing the ballot.

The voting restrictions are being fought in a state where Republicans have dominated local and national races for generations but where recently Democrats have gained traction and won both U.S. Senate seats and the presidential contest last year. The outcome of the case could have far-reaching implications for voting laws in other states, too.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Amy Coney Barrett, two Republican appointees and potentially pivotal votes in the case, appeared to be wrestling with the arguments as they asked tough questions of lawyers on both sides.

Roberts asked the Arizona GOP lawyer, who is defending the laws, why it’s “a bad thing” for election procedures to seek “racial proportionality.”

Later, he pressed the Democrats’ lawyer to define what it would take in their opinion to make a law unacceptable. “What if the provision results in a 1 percent decline in participation by minority voters — is that substantial enough?” he asked.

Barrett told Arizona’s state lawyer that there were “some contradictions” in his argument and that his task was to show why the changes in laws preserved equal “opportunity” for white and nonwhite voters.

But later, she appeared torn about whether Arizona’s laws cross the line. “There’s a difficulty that the statutory language and its lack of clarity presents in trying to figure out when something crosses from an inconvenience to a burden,” Barrett said.

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Supreme Court Won’t Extend Wisconsin’s Deadline for Mailed Ballots

From today’s New York Times:

The Supreme Court refused on Monday to revive a trial court ruling that would have extended Wisconsin’s deadline for receiving absentee ballots to six days after the election.

The vote was 5 to 3, with the court’s more conservative justices in the majority. As is typical, the court’s brief, unsigned order gave no reasons. But several justices filed concurring and dissenting opinions that spanned 35 pages and revealed a stark divide in their understanding of the role of the courts in protecting the right to vote during a pandemic.

The ruling was considered a victory for Republicans in a crucial swing state, which polls have shown Mr. Trump trailing in after winning by about 23,000 votes in 2016.

The Democratic Party of Wisconsin immediately announced a voter education project to alert voters that absentee ballots have to be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day, Nov. 3. “We’re dialing up a huge voter education campaign,” Ben Wikler, the state party chairman, said on Twitter. The U.S. Postal Service has recommended that voters mail their ballots by Oct. 27 to ensure that they are counted.

The ruling came as President Trump continued to attack mail-in voting, which Democrats are using far more heavily this year. In a tweet late Monday, Mr. Trump falsely declared that there were “Big problems and discrepancies with Mail In Ballots all over the USA. Must have final total on November 3rd.” (Twitter quickly put a warning label on the tweet.)

The ruling was also the latest in a flurry of election-year decisions by the court that have mostly upheld voting restrictions, and the Trump campaign and its Republican allies are seeking similar restrictions on ballot deadlines in other states. Cases from North Carolina and Pennsylvania are pending before the court, the latter a second attempt after a 4-to-4 deadlock last week. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who was confirmed and sworn in to the Supreme Court on Monday night, could cast the decisive vote in that case.

In Monday’s opinions, divisions over voting rights that had been hinted at in some of the previous rulings came more clearly into the open.

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SCOTUS denies GOP bid to stop an extended deadline for PA mail-in ballots

From today’s Washington Post:

The Supreme Court on Monday night allowed Pennsylvania election officials to count mail-in ballots received up to three days after Election Day, refusing a Republican request to stop a pandemic-related procedure approved by the state’s highest court.

The justices’ action involved an arcane voting practice but carried outsize importance because of Pennsylvania’s pivotal role in the presidential election. It prompted a fierce battle between the state’s Democrats and Republicans.

It also showed a precariously balanced Supreme Court, which has only eight members after the death last month of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the potential importance of President Trump’s nominee to replace her, Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

The court was tied on the Republican request, which means the effort failed.

The court’s four most conservative justices — Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh — said they would have granted the stay.

But that takes five votes, which means Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. sided with liberal Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Neither side explained its reasoning, which often is the case with emergency requests. But the outcome underscored the decisive role Barrett could play if she is confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate — with a vote there expected as soon as next week. Trump has said he wants his nominee on the court in case it is split on litigation arising from the election.

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SCOTUS clears the way for sending mail-in ballots to Montana voters

From today’s CNN News Online:

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan on Thursday denied a request from Republicans to block Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s directive last month allowing counties to send mail-in ballots to all registered voters amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

Kagan, who has jurisdiction over the lower court involved in the case, turned down the request without referring the petition to her colleagues or asking the other side for its views.The suit was brought by Joe Lamm of the Ravali County Republican Central Committee as well as several voters.”

While Covid is a national tragedy, it poses no emergency,” James Bopp, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, wrote in court papers. Bopp noted that the Montana legislature already allowed any qualified voter to obtain a no-excuse absentee ballot by merely applying.

Lower courts have upheld Montana’s directive. Bullock, a Democrat, issued a similar directive in the primary, and all of the state’s counties opted to send out mail-in ballots to voters. Montana already allowed voters to request and submit absentee ballots without providing an excuse.

Bullock will appear on the ballot as a candidate for Senate in November. He is running against Republican Sen. Steve Daines in a competitive race that could help Democrats flip the Senate.

The case that Kagan acted on Thursday isn’t Montana’s only voting battle playing out in the courts. In September, a federal judge in Montana rejected the Trump campaign’s effort to stop an expansion of mail-in voting in the state after the campaign and the Republican National Committee filed suit following Bullock’s directive.

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Florida fight over felon voting rights playing out at US Supreme Court

From the South Florida Sun-Sentiel:

A battle over voting rights in Florida is playing out at the U.S. Supreme Court, with the ability of hundreds of thousands of felons to cast ballots in this year’s elections at stake.

Attorneys for the state and voting-rights groups filed briefs this week at the Supreme Court as they continue wrangling over a challenge to a 2019 state law requiring felons to pay “legal financial obligations” — fees, fines, costs and restitution — to be eligible to vote. Voting-rights groups argue that linking voting rights and finances amounts to an unconstitutional “poll tax.”

The state law was aimed at carrying out a 2018 constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to felons “upon completion of all terms of sentence, including parole or probation.”

The voting-rights groups went to the Supreme Court last week after an Atlanta-based appeals court put on hold a ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who said the state cannot deny voting rights to felons who cannot afford to pay court-ordered financial obligations associated with their convictions.

The plaintiffs are challenging the hold, saying it would block felons from voting in the August primary elections and could prevent them from casting ballots in November.

But in a response filed Tuesday at the Supreme Court, lawyers for Gov. Ron DeSantis said the stay on Hinkle’s decision issued July 1 by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals should remain intact.

Hinkle’s May decision, which said that depriving poor felons of the right to vote is unconstitutional wealth-based discrimination, laid out a process for state elections officials to use to determine voters’ eligibility. Under the procedure, hundreds of thousands of felons who have served their time behind bars would be able to register and vote in the Aug. 18 and Nov. 3 elections without taking any additional action.

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The Supreme Court just handed down some truly awful news for voting rights

From today’s Vox News Online:

The Supreme Court handed down two briefunsigned orders on Friday concerning what restrictions states may place on absentee voting during the coronavirus pandemic. Though neither order is a final judgment — one grants a temporary stay of a lower court decision, the other denies expedited review of an important voting rights case — the practical impact of both orders is that voters in Alabama and Texas will find it harder to cast a ballot during the pandemic.

The Texas order is particularly ominous because it suggests that Texas will be able to apply election rules that ensure older, Republican-leaning voters have an easy time casting a ballot — while younger voters could be forced to risk infection in order to vote.

The Alabama case

The Alabama case is Merrill v. People First of Alabama. Alabama law allows anyone to cast an absentee ballot during the pandemic, but it also imposes certain restrictions on those voters. Among other things, absentee voters must provide a copy of their photo ID, and their ballot must be signed by either two witnesses or one notary public.

A lower court blocked these restrictions “for voters who cannot safely obtain the signatures of two witnesses or a notary public due to the COVID-19 pandemic” and “for absentee voters who are over the age of 65 or disabled and who cannot safely obtain a copy of their photo ID due to the COVID-19 pandemic.” But the Supreme Court stayed that lower court decision — ensuring that, at the very least, the restrictions will be in place for Alabama’s July 14 runoff primary election.

Notably, the Supreme Court’s order in Merrill was joined only by the Court’s five Republicans. All four Democratic appointees dissented. Neither side explained why they voted the way they did.

The Texas case

The Texas case, meanwhile, is Texas Democratic Party v. Abbott, and the stakes in that case are simply enormous.

Texas law permits voters over the age of 65 to request absentee ballots without difficulty. But most voters under the age of 65 are not allowed to vote absentee. During a pandemic election, that means older voters — a demographic that has historically favored Republicans over Democrats — will have a fairly easy time participating in the November election. But younger voters will likely have to risk infection at an in-person polling site if they wish to cast a ballot.

This arrangement is difficult to square with the 26th Amendment, which provides that “the right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.”

The Court’s order in Texas Democratic Party is subtle, but it most likely means that Texas will be able to deny or abridge the right to vote on account of age, at least during the November election.

Last month, the conservative United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit blocked a trial judge’s order that would have allowed younger Texans to vote absentee. Although this Fifth Circuit order is not the appeals court’s last word on this case, it is quite unlikely that the plaintiffs in Texas Democratic Party will prevail before the Fifth Circuit, which is among the most conservative courts in the country.

So those plaintiffs asked the Supreme Court to hear their case on an expedited basis. On Friday, the Supreme Court denied that request. As a practical matter, writes SCOTUSBlog’s Amy Howe, this refusal to expedite the Texas Democratic Party case “all but eliminated the prospect that the justices will weigh in on the merits of that dispute before the 2020 election in November.”

Thus, even if the Supreme Court ultimately does decide that Texas’s age discrimination violates the 26th Amendment, that decision will almost certainly come too late to benefit anyone in November.

Read the complete article here.

SCOTUS could upend consumer financial protection as we know it

From today’s CNBC News Online:

A case before the Supreme Court has the power dramatically to reshape how the U.S. government polices financial fraud and other misdeeds against consumers — which many experts fear would weaken existing protections and expose the public to more harm.

The case, which concerns the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, ultimately could lead to the dissolution of the agency, which lawmakers created in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and was bestowed with broad powers to issue and enforce consumer-protection rules in areas such as banking, student loans, credit reporting, mortgages, payday loans and debt collection.

Depending on their verdict, Supreme Court justices could also diminish states’ power to investigate and punish financial wrongdoing.

“It would be effectively a big rollback in the consumer protection enforcement authorities,” said Christopher Peterson, the director of financial services and a senior fellow at the Consumer Federation of America, a consumer advocacy group. “There would be fewer deterrents [for financial institutions] to use tricks and traps” to ensnare the American public, he said.

Congress created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2010 when it passed the Dodd-Frank financial-reform law, giving it a mission to protect Americans from unfair, deceptive and abusive financial practices. At the time, families were grappling with the effects of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, perpetuated by irresponsible lending practices that reverberated across the U.S. and global economies.

Oversight of consumer finance was previously “scattered across government” and laws “escaped regular federal oversight,” according to the CFPB website. The CFPB has collected billions of dollars in penalties from financial companies for wrongdoing. Its largest, for $2.13 billion in 2013, was levied against mortgage servicing firm Ocwen Financial Corp. and a subsidiary for allegedly putting thousands of people at risk for losing their homes.

The agency has recovered more than $12 billion for consumers to date, according to a Consumer Federation of America report published in March last year. The agency’s activity has dropped off under the Trump administration, the report says.

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Can Someone Be Fired for Being Gay? The Supreme Court Will Decide

From today’s New York Times:

The Supreme Court has delivered a remarkable series of victories to the gay rights movement over the last two decades, culminating in a ruling that established a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. But in more than half the states, someone can still be fired for being gay.

Early in its new term, on Oct. 8, the court will consider whether an existing federal law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, guarantees nationwide protection from workplace discrimination to gay and transgender people, even in states that offer no protections right now.

It will be the court’s first case on L.G.B.T. rights since the retirement last year of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinions in all four of the court’s major gay rights decisions. And without Justice Kennedy, who joined four liberals in the 5-to-4 ruling in the marriage case, the workers who sued their employers in the three cases before the court may face an uphill fight.

“Now that we don’t have Kennedy on the court, it would be a stretch to find a fifth vote in favor of any of these claims that are coming to the court,” said Katherine Franke, a law professor at Columbia and the author of “Wedlocked: The Perils of Marriage Equality.”

Read the complete article here.

Supreme Court decides federal judges cannot block gerrymandering

From today’s CNBC Online:

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that federal courts may not block gerrymandering in a 5-4 decision that fell along partisan lines.

The court also ruled, in a separate high-profile case decided Thursday, that the Trump administration’s reasoning for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census was insufficient, effectively blocking the question for now.

On the final day of decisions before the court’s summer recess, Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the majority opinions of the court in both cases.

The closely watched case on a charged political matter comes in the midst of the 2020 presidential election. The decision was met with scorn by some Democrats running for president, including former vice president Joe Biden, and a sharp dissent from the liberal justices.

“We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” Roberts wrote in the redistricting case. He said those asking the top court to block gerrymandered districts effectively sought “an unprecedented expansion of judicial power.”

“Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions,” he wrote.

The court’s decision prompted a fierce reply from its liberal wing. Justice Elena Kagan wrote a dissent joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

“Of all times to abandon the Court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one,” Kagan wrote. “The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the Court’s role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections.”

Read the complete article here.