Minnesota Appeals Court Turns Back Push to Restore Felon Voting Rights

From today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

The Minnesota Court of Appeals this week became the second court in two years to reject a lawsuit seeking to restore voting rights to Minnesotans who are on felony probation sentences.

The suit was filed against Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon in 2019 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota on behalf of four Minnesotans serving long felony probation terms. It placed Simon, a vocal proponent of restoring voting rights to all non-incarcerated felons, in the awkward position of defending the constitutionality of a law he wants changed.

But in an interview Tuesday, Simon said the Legislature, not the courts, should be the venue for restoring such rights.

“As a person, as an advocate, I strongly favor restoring the right to vote to those who have left prison behind,” he said. “I’ve never made any secret of that, and I think Minnesota is happily moving in that direction.”

David McKinney, a staff attorney for the ACLU, said Tuesday that the group would “keep fighting” and appeal this week’s ruling to the state Supreme Court.

“Felony disenfranchisement is one of the enduring and systemic racial disparities in our criminal justice system,” McKinney said. “Depriving people of their right to vote further entrenches these disparities.”

DFL lawmakers have sought unsuccessfully for years to pass legislation that would immediately return the right to vote to Minnesotans released from prison. One of the four plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Simon, Jennifer Schroeder, became a prominent face in the push for such legislation in 2019 when she shared her story of being unable to vote until 2053 when her 40-year probation term is scheduled to end.

Schroeder is joined by Elizer Darris, Christopher Jecevicus-Varner and Tierre Caldwell, all of whom cannot vote until the end of their own lengthy terms — including a 20-year sentence for Jecevicus-Varner.

The plaintiffs sued Simon in his official capacity as secretary of state, arguing that the prohibition on felon voting is an unconstitutional deprivation “of their fundamental constitutional right to participation in the democratic process.” The plaintiffs argued that the state law violates right-to-vote provisions and equal-protection principles in the Minnesota Constitution as well as its due-process clause.

They sought a court declaration that the statute was unconstitutional and that felons may regain their voting rights upon “being released or excused from incarceration.” A Ramsey County judge denied the plaintiffs’ request for such a declaration last year, and a three-judge Court of Appeals panel upheld the ruling Monday.

Read the complete article here.

Worker Centers Primed to Test “We’re-Not-Unions” Stance in Court

From today’s Bloomberg Law Online:

An ongoing federal investigation in which regulators believe a Minneapolis nonprofit is a labor union rather than a worker center has created an existential crisis for similar groups across the country.

Some worker centers are changing their tactics to try to avoid government scrutiny. The broader worker center community is preparing for legal action if the Labor Department tries to force the targeted group to comply with federal laws for unions.

The DOL’s two-year probe into the status of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha, known as CTUL, led the department’s Office of Labor-Management Standards to determine it “has reason to believe” the group is a labor organization under a 1959 law meant to curb organized labor corruption by ensuring union transparency and democracy.

CTUL and other organizations have grown in influence in recent decades as an alternative to unions in providing low-income, vulnerable workers with training and other tools to improve workplace conditions. CTUL has successfully pressured Target Corp. and other retailers to contract with unionized janitors, part of a trend of company-focused actions that prompted the business community and political conservatives to increase pressure on the Labor Department to review certain worker centers’ operations. Critics believe some worker centers are essentially union fronts.

The stakes are extremely high for CTUL—and, by extension, all worker centers—because federal enforcement of a final determination that the group is a union would subject CTUL to onerous financial reporting and internal governance requirements. Labor organizers and attorneys at worker centers contend the groups are exempt from union-specific disclosure law because they don’t bargain directly with employers. For the business community and Republican lawmakers, the DOL probe represents a breakthrough in a decades-long push for the department to classify certain worker centers as unions.

“I would absolutely say that if the DOL moves ahead with it, the worker center movement is going to push back,” said the National Employment Law Project’s Charlotte Noss, who coordinates legal strategy for worker centers nationwide. She noted that DOL and the National Labor Relations Board have previously held that worker centers aren’t unions. “Any attempts by the DOL to exert coverage would be challenged in court,” she added.

Read the complete article here.

Democrats Are Getting Very Serious About the Native American Vote

From today’s New York Times:

What do the 573 federally recognized nations of American Indians and Alaska Natives all have in common? A never-ending need for lawyers. The Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forumheld this week in Sioux City, Iowa, at which 11 presidential candidates fielded questions from indigenous elected officials and activists, was a rousing two-day argument for an informed, experienced, compassionate and rational president. Sponsored by Four Directions, the South Dakota-based advocates for native voting rights, it was also a sobering reminder that the road to equality in the United States is paved with outrage, elbow grease and paperwork.

No American citizen should have to drive 100 miles to vote, especially if the roads to a far-flung polling place are maintained by the chronically underfunded Bureau of Indian Affairs. (On the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, two people died in July because of a washed-out section of highway on BIA Road 3.) Janet Davis, of Nevada’s Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribal Council, quizzed Marianne Williamson and Bernie Sanders about voting access. She explained that in 2016, her tribe and the Walker River Paiutes won a lawsuit to establish satellite polling places on their reservations. (From Pyramid Lake, the county’s nearest voting site had been a 96-mile round trip.)

Ms. Davis happened to be seated on the stage next to Senator Sanders. She told him, “The county told us it was too late to recruit and train poll workers and we told them we could and we did.” Senator Sanders patted her arm and smiled, revealing an uncharacteristic split second of what appeared to be actual joy.

Ms. Davis asked him, “How will you ensure that all Native Americans on reservations have the same access without having to litigate as we did?” His answer echoed Ms. Williamson’s suggestion earlier that morning, that a president who cares will appoint an effective attorney general. (Which is true in that an attorney general can prosecute violations of election law, though states and counties generally control polling locations.) But the real answer, to paraphrase the “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” is that obtaining freedoms is almost always a hassle. All American Indians received full citizenship in 1924, and yet the indigenous people of New Mexico were still suing for suffrage in 1962.

In Minnesota, Four Directions and its native partners were able to negotiate with the state to open satellite polling places on the Red Lake, White Earth and Leech Lake Reservations without litigation. (Good old Minnesotans; unlike the rest of us they might actually deserve Amy Klobuchar.) But in South Dakota and here in Montana, successfully opening satellite polling places on reservations required legal action.

Read the complete article here.

#VotingRights Update: Group Targets GOP States to Attack Gerrymandering

From today’s New York Times:

A Democratic group backed by former President Barack Obama intends to pour millions of dollars into an eclectic array of elections in a dozen states, in an effort to block Republicans from single-handedly drawing congressional maps after 2020, officials leading the group said.

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, formed last year under the leadership of Eric H. Holder Jr., the former attorney general, has settled on a strategy to contest a combination of governorships, legislative seats and more obscure state offices to chip away at Republicans’ sweeping control of the redistricting process.

Mr. Holder said in an interview that the group was chiefly determined to deny Republicans so-called trifectas in state governments — places where a single party controls the governorship and an entire legislature, as Republicans do in Ohio and Florida, among other critical battlegrounds.

The group’s list of high-priority states includes most of the critical states in presidential elections. Mr. Obama, who has made redistricting a focus of his attention since leaving office, plans to visit some of those states in 2018, and Mr. Holder reviewed his strategy with the former president in Washington on Monday, aides said.

States at the top of the just-finalized target list include traditional purple states like Michigan and Wisconsin, where Republicans can currently design maps without Democratic input, and others — including Colorado, Minnesota and Nevada — where Democrats have significant influence in government but must defend it in the 2018 elections.

Read the complete article here.