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Supreme Court Decision Update - Purcell v. Gonzalez

supreme1.jpgWell the new Supreme term is upon us, and the first full opinion is out. The lucky first one outta’ the gun is Purcell v. Gonzalez (PDF of the opinion), a case about voting rights. Well, actually, it’s more about standards of review, when voter rights are involved and there’s an impending election.

QuizLaw Analysis: The Supremes love smacking the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and they’ve done it again. The Court of Appeals basically reversed a District Court without any stated reason why, and the Supremes say that this is not good, particularly in light of the impending election (the Ninth Circuit’s ruling could complicate things for the election). Basically, the Supremes are telling the Ninth Circuit to respect their authoritah!

What’s this case about? Well, it all stems from some new voting procedures in Arizona. See, back in 2004, a ballot proposition was approved to help fight voter fraud. The state implemented new procedures to comply with this proposition and, among other things, the new procedures require voters to show proper identification at the polls. If a voter doesn’t have such ID, they can still cast a ballot, but it’s considered conditional - they then have five business days to come back with proper ID. If they do so, the ballot counts, and if they don’t, it get tossed. The Arizona procedures also say that if someone knows they won’t have valid ID by the election date, they can vote early during the state’s early voting period, since this will give the election officials enough time to establish that the voter was legit.

In May, some folks got together and sued the state to try to put a stop to these procedures. They’re worried voters will be disenfranchised, and that legitimate and qualified voters will get turned away. In September, the District Court denied their request for a preliminary injunction stopping the new procedures form being implemented. However, the Court didn’t issue any findings of fact or conclusions of law, so there wasn’t much to work with during the inevitable appeal. Nevertheless, a panel for the Ninth Circuit issued a four-sentence order reversing the District Court and enjoining Arizona from implementing the new procedures (it was a special Ninth Circuit panel because of the hurry-up necessity of this case, in light of the impending election). Following this order, the District Court actually issued its findings of facts and conclusions of law, noting that it felt that there was a possibility of success, but not a strong likelihood of success (and plaintiffs who want a preliminary injunction need to show such a likelihood of success).

What’s “per curiam” again? This opinion is a per curiam opinion, meaning it’s an opinion not actually signed by or attributed to any particular Justice.

Gotcha. Well what does this unattributed opinion say? Well the Court begins by noting that it’s important for states to preserve the integrity of their election process, but that it’s also important to make sure that qualified voters get to exercise their “‘fundamental political right’ to vote.”

Turning to the details of this case, the Supremes note that the Ninth Circuit should show deference to the District Court’s discretion in this case. Of course here, there were no findings of fact or conclusions of law from the District Court at the time the Court of Appeals made its decision. And that’s what the Ninth Circuit owes deference too. The Supremes don’t say it directly, but they sort of hint that, had the Court of Appeals explained its order a little, they might have been on board. But since the Court merely issued a four-sentence order with no explanation, the Supremes say they must evaluate this order in light of the post-released findings of fact and conclusions of law from the District Court. And since there’s nothing in the Ninth Circuit’s four sentence order to suggest that any of these findings or conclusions are wrong, and particularly in light of the fact that there’s an election around the corner and the state needs some concrete guidance, the Supremes say that the Court of Appeals is wrong, wrong, wrong. They vacate the injunction and remand this mess of a case, noting that this ruling does not touch on the final merits or disposition of the underlying case, and is just meant to ensure that the election goes off as relatively smooth as possible.

What’s Old Man Stevens have to say for himself? Justice Stevens issued a one paragraph concurrence just to note that this result will actually help the court in resolving the underlying case. The elections will now go through under the state’s new procedure, so there will be a record to show whether there really is disenfranchisement, and to show how much alleged fraudulent practice is cut down thanks to the new procedures. In other words, it’ll give the courts some concrete evidence to work with “rather than speculation.”