Breaking and Analysis: Federal Court Steps Aside for Now in Dispute over Drop Boxes and Other Pennsylvania Election Rules

In a thoughtful 37-page opinion, in one of the most closely watched pieces of litigation surrounding the conduct of the 2020 election, a federal court (Trump appointee Judge Nicholas Ranjan) has used Pullman abstention to decline to consider the Trump Campaign’s constitutional claims against a number of Pennsylvania election rules (including on whether drop boxes are permissible under Pa law and whether absentee ballots not in sealed secrecy envelopes may be counted).

The judge found that many of the constitutional claims in the case depended upon interpretation of state law, and that the state law issues in the case were contested and being resolved now in state court proceedings. It is thus possible, after the cases are heard by state court and the rules clearly determined, that the Trump Campaign could seek to return to federal court to pursue federal constitutional claims. (It is also possible that the campaign will appeal this ruling and seek to get the abstention ruling reversed.)

There’s one interesting procedural aspect of the case. The court notes that if the Trump Campaign had sought a preliminary injunction, the court likely would have had to rule (and tentatively interpret the state law questions) before deciding on abstention. But the campaign did not seek this preliminary relief, thereby letting the court abstain. Seems like a potential blunder by the Trump lawyers in not seeking a preliminary injunction.

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