Breaking and Analysis: Supreme Court (with Justice Barrett Not Participating) Refuses Again Emergency Relief in Pennsylvania Ballot Deadline Case; At Least 3 Justices See Constitutional Issues Ahead

The Supreme Court (with Justice Barrett not participating) has refused to expedite consideration of the cert. petition in the Pennsylvania voting case. Justices Alito, Gorsuch, and Thomas issued a separate statement saying that time was too late to review things now, but strongly stating a belief that counting the later ballots would be unconstitutional and that there could well be review after the election of the consideration of these ballots.

The result is not surprising, nor is the lineup. Indeed I predicted that Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kavanaugh would not go along with an attempt to relitigate this issue given the very strong reliance arguments (coming from the Court’s earlier refusal to grant a stay) and the likely lack of standing of the PA GOP which brought this latest request (without the GOP legislature).

The big headline out of this decision is the very strong version of the “independent state legislature” doctrine that appears in the separate Alito statement: “The provisions of the Federal Constitution conferring on state legislatures, not state courts, the authority to make rules governing federal elections would be meaningless if a state court could override the rules adopted by the legislature simply by claiming that a state constitutional provision gave the courts the authority to make whatever rules it thought appropriate for the conduct of a fair election.”

To translate this a bit: there are now at least four Justices (if you count Justice Kavanaugh’s views on the merits of this expressed in this week’s Wisconsin case) who believe that when a state Supreme Court applies a state constitution’s protection for voting rights and does so in a way that alters a statute done by the legislature, that act is presumptively illegitimate. That is going to have some very bad ramifications for voting rights going forward and also raises questions about whether states will be able to pass redistricting and other reforms by voter initiative going forward. (Reaching initiatives would require overturning the 2015 Arizona case, but that seems to be well within the realm of future possibilities.)

But what does this mean for a future challenge in the Pennsylvania case and other potential 2020-election related litigation? First, I continue to believe, as I’ve been saying, that given the reliance interests whereby PA voters knew from a few weeks ago that the Supreme Court was not changing the deadline, it’s too late to give a different remedy now. PA voters simply cannot return their ballots in time under the old deadlines and even TODAY the PA website is telling voters to mail their ballots by election day.

Without Roberts and Kavanaugh going along, even if Justice Barrett participated in future cases there would not be 5 Justices to throw out those ballots. It is still a theoretical possibility however, especially with ballots now being segregated between those arriving by the original statutory deadline and later ballots. Hopefully the election will not be close enough in either PA or the electoral college and the issue becomes moot in this election.

But if the issue of the power of state legislatures against state courts comes up again in the 2020 election cycle, and if Justice Barrett participates, then there could well be a different result. As I explained yesterday in the Washington Post:

This theory would matter if, say, Pennsylvania or North Carolina were having a dispute about a recount in which Biden was behind and the state was running out of time to resolve disputes over the ballots. Both states have Democratic-majority state supreme courts, which could order rules for resolving these disputes consistent with their state constitutions but against the wishes of the states’ Republican-dominated legislatures. The conservatives on the court could embrace Kavanaugh’s version of Rehnquist’s Bush v. Gore theory and say that the state court’s changes to allow a full vote count were impermissible, stopping the count.

And although the Supreme Court deadlocked 4-4 on a similar issue last week out of Pennsylvania, with new Justice Amy Coney Barrett seated the court could now be 5-4 on this issue, even if Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. does not buy into the theory of broad legislative power endorsed by Kavanaugh and Gorsuch.

And what to make of Justice Barrett sitting this one out? Did she simply decide there was not enough time to get up to speed on this (a perfectly reasonable conclusion given when she joined the Court!) or is she going to recuse in all 2020-election related litigation? There is no way to know yet.

[This post has been updated.]

Further update. From the Public Information Office statement: “Justice Barrett did not participate in the consideration of this motion because of the need for a prompt resolution of it and because she has not had time to fully review the parties’ filings.”

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