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Friday, March 9, 2012

DNC v. RNC 09-4615 (3d Cir. 2012)

Seal of the RNC
During the 1981 New Jersey gubernatorial election, the DNC, the New Jersey Democratic State Committee (“DSC”), Virginia L. Peggins, and Lynette Monroe brought an action against the RNC, the New Jersey Republican State Committee (“RSC”), John A. Kelly, Ronald Kaufman, and Alex Hurtado, alleging that the RNC and RSC targeted minority voters in an effort to intimidate them in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (“VRA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1971, 1973, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States. The RNC allegedly created a voter challenge list by mailing sample ballots to individuals in precincts with a high percentage of racial or ethnic minority registered voters and, then, including individuals whose postcards were returned as undeliverable on a list of voters to challenge at the polls. The RNC also allegedly enlisted the help of off-duty sheriffs and police officers to intimidate voters by standing at polling places in minority precincts during voting with “National Ballot Security Task Force” armbands. Some of the officers allegedly wore firearms in a visible manner.

To settle the lawsuit, the RNC and RSC entered into a consent decree.  Therein, both committees agreed to abide by all local and national election laws, not to communicate  and, fundamentally, to not be racists.*

In 1987, the RNC initiated a second vote-fraud prevention campaign that, according to the RNC's Midwest Political Director, was designed to "keep the black vote down considerably."  The individuals who were targeted for vote-challenges sued the Republican National Committee to enforce the consent decree and, as a result, the DNC and RNC agreed to even stricter language for the consent decree.  Subsequent challenges were brought in the 1990s, in 2004, and 2008, with mixed results.

In 2008 the RNC petitioned the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey for permission to be released from its obligations under the consent decree.  They claimed that (1) the need for the consent decree vanished with the passage of several federal statutes aimed at rooting out discrimination; (2) the consent decree overbroad given the context in which it was drafted; and (3) the consent decree violates the First Amendment by requiring the RNC to provide the text of the consent decree along with any information about vote-fraud it gives to state republican committees.  The district court declined to vacate the decree and, instead, made administrative revisions to its terms, and the RNC appealed.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals viewed the RNC's claims as legal shenanigans.**  It rejected the First Amendment challenge as unsupported by state action, and found the remaining arguments to be frivolous.  As such, the decision of the district court was affirmed.

*  The actual language of the relevant portion of the consent decree is that both parties must "refrain from undertaking any ballot security activities in polling places or election districts where the racial or ethnic composition of such districts is a factor in the decision to conduct, or the actual conduct of, such activities there and where a purpose or significant effect of such activities is to deter qualified voters from voting."  I'm sticking with my paraphrase.  

**  Specifically, the Court noted that "When, as here, a party voluntarily enters into a consent decree not once, but twice, and then waits over a quarter of a century before filing a motion to vacate or modify the decree, such action gives us pause."  The Court also rejected "The RNC’s argument that the fact that President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, RNC Chairman Michael Steele, and another RNC leader are minorities justifies vacatur or modification of the Decree hardly requires a serious response. The RNC posits that a minority President and Attorney General of the United States increase the likelihood of prosecution for violations of the Voting Rights Act (“VRA”), such as intimidation of minority voters. Are we to conclude that all issues that affect African-Americans will now get greater funding, greater attention, and more focus because of President Obama? Our jurisprudence cannot depend on such assumptions."

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