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.'”

Read the complete article here.

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.

Read the complete article here.

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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SCOTUS takes up Arizona voting rights law that will be heard after the election

From today’s CNN Online:

The Supreme Court said Friday it will review two provisions of an Arizona voting rights law that a federal appeals court said could have a discriminatory impact for American Indian, Hispanic and African Americans in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

One provision concerns an “out of precinct policy” that does not count provisional ballots cast in person on Election Day outside of the voter’s designated precinct. Another concerns the “ballot collection law” which permits only certain persons — family and household members, caregivers, mail carriers and elections officials — to handle another person’s completed ballot.

The dispute will not be resolved before the election because the argument calendar is already full through December.In January, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the state’s policy of “wholly discarding” rather than counting or partially counting out of precinct ballots and the criminalization of the collection of another person’s ballot has a “discriminatory impact on American Indian, Hispanic and African American voters in the state in violation of the Voting Rights Act.”

The court also held that the ballot collection provision was enacted with discriminatory intent. The court agreed to put its decision on hold pending appeal. Mark Brnovich, Arizona’s attorney general, called the provisions “commonplace election administration provisions” used by Arizona and “dozens of states.” Over the dissent of four judges, the majority invalidated two commonplace election administration provisions used by Arizona and dozens of other states to prevent multiple voting, protect against voter intimidation, preserve the secrecy of the ballot, and safeguard election integrity.

But Marc Elias, a lawyer for the Democratic National Committee, argued that Supreme Court precedents and the law compelled the lower court to conclude that Arizona’s wholesale rejection of ballots cast out of precinct and its criminalization of ballot collection violated Voting Rights Act.

Read the complete article here.

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.

Read the complete article here.

Supreme Court ruling allows plan for religious limits to Obamacare contraceptive coverage

From today’s NBC News Online:

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday cleared the way for the Trump administration to give the nation’s employers more leeway in refusing to provide free birth control for their workers under the Affordable Care Act.

The ruling is a victory for the administration’s plan to greatly expand the kinds of employers who can cite religious or moral objections in declining to include contraceptives in their health care plans. Up to 126,000 women nationwide would lose birth control coverage under President Donald Trump’s plan, the government estimated. Planned Parenthood said nearly nine in 10 women seek contraceptive care of some kind during their lifetimes.

The Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, gives the government authority to create the religious and moral objections, said Justice Clarence Thomas for the court’s 7-2 majority. The Department of Health and Human Services “has virtually unbridled discretion to decide what counts as preventive care and screenings,” and that same authority “leaves its discretion equally unchecked in other areas, including the ability to identify and create exemptions from its own guidelines,” he said.

In dissent, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor said the court in the past has struck a balance in religious freedom cases, so that the beliefs of some do not overwhelm the rights of others.

“Today for the first time, the court casts totally aside countervailing rights and interests in its zeal to secure religious rights to the nth degree” and “leaves women workers to fend for themselves” in seeking contraceptive services, they said.

Women’s groups condemned the ruling. The National Women’s Law Center said more than 61 million women get birth control coverage through Obamacare.

“The Supreme Court’s decision will leave their ability to receive this critical coverage at the whim of their employers and universities,” the group said. “This decision will disproportionately harm low-wage workers, people of color, LGBTQ people, and others who already face barriers to care.”

Read the complete article here.

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.

Read the complete article here.

Trump Appointee Gorsuch Plays Coy In LGBTQ Employment Rights Case

From today’s NPR News Online:

The retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy loomed large over arguments at the court Tuesday in a set of cases testing whether employers are free to fire gay and transgender employees. Kennedy, a Reagan appointee, was the author of every major gay rights decision for more than two decades. His absence, and the presence of two new Trump appointees, could very well determine how these cases are decided, who wins, and who loses.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who replaced Kennedy, asked only one question during two hours of argument Tuesday. Instead, it was Justice Neil Gorsuch, the other Trump appointee, who was the focal point.

Gorsuch, an adamant advocate for reading the text of a statute literally, admitted to a bit of a conundrum. Addressing ACLU lawyer David Cole, he said, “Assume for the moment … I’m with you on the textual evidence,” but “it’s close … very close.” The words of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act bar employment discrimination “because of sex,” or “based on sex.”

Gorsuch seemed to be agreeing that language would appear to cover gay and transgender employees. But, he then asked whether a justice should “take into consideration the massive social upheaval that would” ensue from such a decision. Wouldn’t it be better to let Congress do it?

Cole replied that federal courts have been finding it illegal to discriminate against transgender employees for 20 years, and “there’s been no upheaval.” Dress codes and sex-segregated restrooms “have not fallen,” he observed, adding there has been no tumult.

Read the complete article here.

We Talked to the Lawyer Fighting for the Right to Be Trans at Work

From today’s Vice Media:

At this point, many Americans are familiar with what happened to Aimee Stephens: For years, she was a valued employee at a funeral home. Then, in 2013, she came out as trans and began presenting as a woman for the first time. That’s when she was fired.

Stephens decided to sue her former employer, Michigan’s R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, for discrimination. In October, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear her case—creating the first opportunity for the justices to directly consider the rights of transgender people.

Those rights have only recently become a mainstream political issue, so many people are unaware that there are now decades of U.S. case law underpinning most of the policies that politicians are currently debating. When SCOTUS hears Stephens’ case in October, all of those lower-court decisions affirming the right of trans people to be included in sex-based nondiscrimination law will be under threat.

At the heart of the fight is a 1989 SCOTUS precedent, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, a caseinvolving a butch woman who was denied promotions when she failed to conform to feminine beauty and personality stereotypes. Ultimately, the court ruled that employment decisions cannot be based on sex stereotypes. It’s been a key ruling not only for cisgender women throughout the U.S., but also for those of us in the trans community.

After successfully arguing Stephens’ case in front of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, John Knight of the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project will present her argument to the highest court in the nation this fall. Over the years, he has been central to arguing key trans-related cases all over the midwest.

We asked Knight why this case is so important for not only transgender people, but everyone, and what to look out for this October.

Read the complete interview here.