Justia U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Election Law
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The Materiality Provision of the Civil Rights Act, 52 U.S.C. 10101(a)(2)(B), prohibits any “person acting under color of law [from] deny[ing] the right of any individual to vote in any election because of an error or omission … if such error or omission is not material in determining whether such voter is qualified … to vote in such election.” In Pennsylvania, an error or omission is material to a voter’s qualifications to vote if it is pertinent to either the voter’s age, citizenship, residency, or felony status or the timeliness of the ballot. The Lehigh County Board of Elections (LCBE) held an election on November 2, 2021, to fill local vacancies. LCBE set aside 257 out of approximately 22,000 mail-in or absentee ballots that lacked a handwritten date next to the voter declaration signature and ballots with the date in the wrong location on the outer envelope. LCBE convened a public hearing and voted to count the undated and misdated ballots.The Third Circuit held that private plaintiffs have a private right of action to enforce section 10101 under 42 U.S.C. 1983 and that the dating provisions contained in 25 Pa. Cons. Stat. 3146.6(a) and 3150.16 are immaterial to a voter’s qualifications and eligibility under section 10101(a)(2)(B). The court directed that the undated ballots be counted. View "Migliori v. Lehigh County Board of Elections" on Justia Law

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In 2016, the out-of-state petition circulators challenged Section 2869 of the Pennsylvania Election Code, which requires that any circulator of nomination petitions be “a qualified elector of the Commonwealth, who is duly registered and enrolled as a member of the party designated in said petition.” The district court found that the ban was not facially unconstitutional, but was unconstitutional as applied to the plaintiffs for the 2020 election only. The plaintiffs did not appeal the conclusion that the ban was not facially unconstitutional. The court declined to expand the injunctive relief to cover future elections for the plaintiffs and all similarly situated individuals. The Third Circuit held that permanent injunctive relief for all future elections is appropriate for the plaintiff circulators only, not to all similarly situated individuals, and only if the plaintiffs continue to submit to Pennsylvania’s jurisdiction. The request for permanent relief for the plaintiffs and all similarly situated individuals goes beyond the specific plaintiffs and circumstances of this litigation and seeks facial relief. A factual record specific to each similarly situated individual circulator will be necessary to determine the appropriate relief in future elections. Each individual circulator will need to demonstrate their willingness to submit to Pennsylvania’s jurisdiction for the purpose of nomination circulation. View "Benezet Consulting LLC v. Secretary Commonwealth of Pennsylvania" on Justia Law

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Attorney Smukler ran political campaigns for 30 years and developed expertise with Federal Election Commission law. In 2012, U.S. Representative Brady ran for reelection in Pennsylvania’s First Congressional District in Philadelphia. Brady's challenger, Moore, struggled to raise money and personally loaned his campaign about $150,000. Brady agreed to give Moore $90,000 to drop out of the race. To steer the money to Moore, Smukler devised a plan that involved a bogus corporation, “dummy invoices,” and funneling cash through a political consulting firm. In the 2014 Democratic Primary for the Thirteenth Congressional District of Pennsylvania, Smukler dipped into the general election reserve on behalf of former U.S. Representative Margolies, then used friends and family as strawmen to evade federal election laws.Smukler was convicted on nine counts of election law violations. He was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment, plus fines and assessments. The Third Circuit vacated the convictions on two counts but otherwise affirmed. The court upheld the jury instructions defining the term “willfully,” except with respect to counts that charged Smukler with violating 18 U.S.C. 2 and 1001(a)(1) by causing the false statements of others within the Brady and Margolies campaigns. A proper charge for willfulness in cases brought under those sections in the federal election law context requires the prosecution to prove that defendant knew of the statutory obligations, that he attempted to frustrate those obligations, and that he knew his conduct was unlawful. View "United States v. Smukler" on Justia Law

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Pennsylvania Act 77 established “no-excuse” absentee voting. All eligible Pennsylvania voters may vote by mail without showing their absence from their voting district on the day of the election; “[a]pplications for mail-in ballots shall be processed if received not later than five o’clock P.M. of the first Tuesday prior to the day of any primary or election” and “a completed absentee [or mail-in] ballot must be received in the office of the county board of elections no later than eight o’clock P.M. on the day of the primary or election” for that vote to count.The Democratic Party argued that a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and mail-delivery delays made it difficult for absentee voters to timely return their ballots in the 2020 primary election. On September 17, 2020, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that USPS’s existing delivery standards could not meet the timeline built into the Election Code and that the Pennsylvania Constitution required a three-day extension of the ballot-receipt deadline for the general election. Pennsylvania voters were notified of the extension. The U.S. Supreme Court denied an emergency stay request while requiring that county boards of elections segregate ballots received during the extension.Another federal suit, brought by voters, alleged the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had elevated mail-in voters to a “preferred class” and that counting ballots received after Election Day would unlawfully dilute their votes. The district court denied a preliminary injunction, noting that the provision did not extend the period for mail-in voters to actually cast their ballots and that federal courts should ordinarily not alter the election rules on the eve of an election.”The Third Circuit denied a request for expedited briefing and affirmed without deciding whether the provisions are proper exercises of Pennsylvania’s authority to regulate federal elections. When voters cast their ballots under a facially lawful election rule, private citizens lack standing to enjoin the counting of those ballots on the grounds that the source of the rule was the wrong state organ or that doing so dilutes their votes or constitutes differential treatment. View "Bognet v. Secretary Commonwealth of Pennsylvania" on Justia Law

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Rejecting a challenge to Pennsylvania’s ballot laws under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, the district court concluded that enforcing the signature requirement, in combination with the Governor’s Orders issued to address the COVID-19 pandemic, imposed only a moderate burden. The court found that the plaintiffs had sufficient time and means to meet the signature requirements under Pennsylvania law, which were reduced by more than 90% in a 2018 suit and that the August 3 deadline for collecting signatures did not constitute a “severe burden” requiring strict scrutiny.The Third Circuit affirmed. The district court correctly applied the Supreme Court’s balancing test and the law survives intermediate scrutiny because it serves the Commonwealth’s legitimate and sufficiently important interests in “avoiding ballot clustering, ensuring viable candidates, and the orderly and efficient administration of elections.” View "Libertarian Party of Pennsylvania v. Governor of Pennsylvania" on Justia Law

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Section 1513 of the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development and Gaming Act prevents the plaintiffs from making political contributions because they hold interests in businesses that have gaming licenses. They sued, claiming First Amendment and Equal Protection violations. The district court concluded that Section 1513 furthers a substantially important state interest in preventing quid pro quo corruption but ruled that the restriction is unconstitutional because the Commonwealth did not draw it closely enough. The court permanently enjoined the enforcement of Section 1513.The Third Circuit affirmed. Limitations on campaign expenditures are subject to strict scrutiny. The government must prove that the regulations promote a “compelling interest” and are the “least restrictive means to further the articulated interest.” Even applying an intermediate threshold, examining whether the statute is “closely drawn,” the Commonwealth does not meet its burden. The overwhelming majority of states with commercial, non-tribal casino gambling like Pennsylvania do not have any political contribution restrictions that apply specifically to gaming industry-related parties. The Commonwealth’s implicit appeal to “common sense” as a surrogate for evidence in support of its far-reaching regulatory scheme is noteworthy in light of the approach taken by most other similarly situated states. View "Deon v. Barasch" on Justia Law

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In 2017, the League of Women Voters and Pennsylvania Democratic voters filed a state court lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania’s 2011 congressional districting map. They alleged that Republican lawmakers drew the map to entrench Republican power in Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation and disadvantage Democratic voters and that the Republican redistricting plan violated the Pennsylvania Constitution by burdening and disfavoring Democratic voters’ rights to free expression and association and by intentionally discriminating against Democratic voters. Five months later, State Senate President Pro Tempore Scarnati, a Republican lawmaker who sponsored the 2011 redistricting plan, removed the matter to federal court, contending federal jurisdiction existed because of a newly scheduled congressional election. The federal district court remanded the matter to state court, where the suit has since concluded with a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs. Citing 28 U.S.C. 1447(c), the federal court directed Senator Scarnati personally to pay $29,360 to plaintiffs for costs and fees incurred in the removal and remand proceedings. The Third Circuit ruled in favor of Scarnati, citing the Supreme Court’s directive that courts carefully adhere to the distinction between personal and official capacity suits, The court upheld a finding that the removal lacked an objectively reasonable basis. View "League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania v. Pennsylvania" on Justia Law

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Adams, a resident and member of the State Bar of Delaware, wanted to be considered for a state judicial position. Following the announcement of several judicial vacancies, Adams considered applying but ultimately chose not to because the announcement required that the candidate be a Republican. Because Adams was neither a Republican nor a Democrat, he concluded that any application he submitted would be futile. Adams challenged the Delaware Constitution's provision that effectively limits service on state courts to members of the Democratic and Republican parties, citing Supreme Court precedent: A provision that limits a judicial candidate’s freedom to associate (or not to associate) with the political party of his choice is unconstitutional. The governor responded that because judges are policymakers, there are no constitutional restraints on his hiring decisions. The Third Circuit ruled in favor of Adams, concluding that judges are not policymakers because whatever decisions judges make in any given case relates to the case under review and not to partisan political interests. The portions of Delaware’s constitution that limit Adams’s ability to apply for a judicial position while associating with the political party of his choice violate his First Amendment rights. View "Adams v. Governor of Delaware" on Justia Law

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In 2012, minor political parties challenged Pennsylvania’s election laws under the First and Fourteenth Amendment, 42 U.S.C. 1983. Minor parties gather a considerable number of signatures to place candidates on the ballot; the validity of those signatures can be challenged. A successful challenge may result in an award of costs (which may be considerable). The threat of these high costs has deterred some candidates. The court held that the statutes were, in combination, unconstitutional as applied to the parties, and ultimately adopted the Commonwealth’s proposal, based on a pending Pennsylvania General Assembly bill, that minor party candidates be placed on the ballot if they gather two and one-half times as many signatures as major party candidates must gather for the office of Governor, at least 5,000 signatures must be gathered with at least 250 from at least 10 of the 67 counties. For other statewide offices, the bill required 1,250-2,500 signatures with at least 250 from at least five counties. The court did not find any facts, nor explain its decision. The Third Circuit vacated, finding the record inadequate to support the signature gathering requirement. The appropriate inquiry is concerned with the extent to which a challenged regulation actually burdens constitutional rights and is “fact-intensive.” The court can impose the county-based signature-gathering requirements if it concludes that the requirements would have no appreciable impact on voting rights. View "Constitution Party of Pennsylvania v. Cortes" on Justia Law

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The American Civil Rights Union (ACRU) challenged the Philadelphia City Commissioners’ failure to purge the city’s voter rolls of registered voters who are currently incarcerated due to a felony conviction. Because state law prohibits felons from voting while they are in prison, the ACRU argues that the National Voter Registration Act, 52 U.S.C. 50207, requires the Commissioners to remove them from the voter rolls. The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. The unambiguous text of the Act states that while states are required to make reasonable efforts to remove registrants for certain reasons, states are merely permitted—not required— to provide for removal of registrants from the official list based on criminal conviction. The 2002 Help America Vote Act, 42 U.S.C. 15301, also cited by ACRU, contains no private right of enforcement. View "American Civil Rights Union v. Philadelphia City Commissioner" on Justia Law