League of Women Voters of Fla. Inc. v. Lee, 4:21cv186-MW/MAF

CourtUnited States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. Northern District of Florida
PartiesLEAGUE OF WOMEN VOTERS OF FLORIDA, INC., et al., Plaintiffs, v. LAUREL M. LEE, in her official capacity as Florida Secretary of State, et al., Defendants, and NATIONAL REPUBLICAN SENATORIAL COMMITTEE and REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE, Intervenor-Defendants.
Docket Number4:21cv201-MW/MJF,4:21cv242-MW/MAF,4:21cv187-MW/MAF,4:21cv186-MW/MAF
Decision Date31 March 2022


LAUREL M. LEE, in her official capacity as Florida Secretary of State, et al., Defendants,


Nos. 4:21cv186-MW/MAF, 4:21cv187-MW/MAF, 4:21cv201-MW/MJF, 4:21cv242-MW/MAF

United States District Court, N.D. Florida, Tallahassee Division

March 31, 2022



This case is about our sacred right to vote-won at great cost in blood and treasure.[1] Courts have long recognized that, because “the right to exercise the franchise in a free and unimpaired manner is preservative of other basic civil and


political rights, any alleged infringement of the right of citizens to vote must be carefully and meticulously scrutinized.” Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533, 561-62 (1964). Applying that maxim, this Court must rule on the legality of Florida Senate Bill 90-a sweeping package of amendments to the Florida Election Code-that Plaintiffs challenge under the First, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Voting Rights Act (VRA).

Defendants argue that SB 90 makes minor prophylactic changes to the election code. Plaintiffs[2], on the other hand, allege that SB 90 runs roughshod over the right to vote, unnecessarily making voting harder for all eligible Floridians, unduly burdening disabled voters, and intentionally targeting minority voters-all to improve the electoral prospects of the party in power. This Court has received thousands of pages of evidence-plus thousands more pages of briefing-and has heard two weeks' worth of testimony from 42 witnesses, ranging from state senators to statisticians.[3] Having reviewed all the evidence, this Court finds that, for the most


part, Plaintiffs are right. Thus, as explained in detail below, this Court enjoins Defendants from enforcing most of SB 90's challenged provisions.

In so ruling, this Court recognizes that the right to vote, and the VRA particularly, are under siege. See, e.g., Ark. State Conf. NAACP v. Ark. Bd. of Apportionment, No. 4:21-cv-01239-LPR, 2022 WL 496908, at *2 (E.D. Ark. Feb. 17, 2022) (dismissing a “strong merits case” that Arkansas had, to the detriment of Black voters, racially gerrymandered seats in the Arkansas House of Representatives under the theory that no private right of action is available under section 2 of the VRA); Merrill v. Milligan, 142 S.Ct. 879 (2022) (staying, without explanation, order enjoining racially gerrymandered congressional maps); Brnovich v. Democratic Nat'l Comm., 141 S.Ct. 2321, 2351 (2021) (Kagan, J., dissenting) (“Today, the Court undermines Section 2 [of the VRA] and the right it provides.”); Shelby Cnty., Ala. v. Holder, 570 U.S. 529 (2013) (gutting the VRA's preclearance regime).

Federal courts must not lose sight of the spirit that spurred the VRA's passage. In June 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a letter to the New York Amsterdam News urging Congress to pass the VRA. In it, he wrote that “to deny a person the right to exercise his political freedom at the polls is no less a dastardly act as to deny a Christian the right to petition God in prayer.” Martin Luther King Jr., Let My People V o t e , The Atlantic, https://tinyurl.com/2sfx63u4 (last visited Mar. 22, 2022). Federal


courts would not countenance a law denying Christians their sacred right to prayer, and they should not countenance a law denying Floridians their sacred right to vote.


At the outset, this Court notes that the parties have vastly different views on how this Court should approach this case. To hear Plaintiffs tell it, Florida wears a constitutional straitjacket any time it revises its election code. To hear Defendants tell it, Florida holds a constitutional blank check. Neither is true.

States enjoy considerable discretion in regulating their elections. Article I of the Constitution tasks states with enacting laws governing “[t]he Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives.” U.S. Const. art. I, § 4, cl. 1. But the states' discretion is not limitless. The states must comply with acts of Congress, such as the VRA. See Id. (“[B]ut the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations.”). They must also comply with the Constitution. For example, election regulations cannot “deny to any person . . . the equal protection of the laws.” U.S. Const. amend. XIV. And states cannot deny the right to vote based on race, sex, or failure to pay a tax. U.S. Const. amend. XV, § 1; U.S. Const. amend. XIX; U.S. Const. amend. XXIV. Nor, for citizens older than 18, can states deny the right to vote based on age. U.S. Const. amend. XXVI.

The bottom line is that, when called to examine the Florida Election Code's fidelity to federal law, this Court must use a gentle touch, recognizing the State's


prerogative to make such laws while also safeguarding the Constitution's guarantees to the people of Florida.

Recognizing this truth, this Court has long deferred to the State when evaluating its election regulations. See, e.g., Democratic Senatorial Campaign Comm. v. Detzner, 347 F.Supp.3d 1033, 1036 (N.D. Fla. 2018) (declining to enjoin enforcement of Florida's standards for determining “voter intent when the voter has not properly filled out their ballot”); Votevets Action Fund v. Detzner, No. 4:18cv524-MW/MJF, 2018 WL 11254567, at *1 (N.D. Fla. Nov. 16, 2018) (declining to enjoin enforcement of Florida law distinguishing between domestic and overseas absentee voters); Democratic Senatorial Campaign Comm. v. Detzner, No. 4:18cv528-MW/CAS, slip op. at 1-6 (N.D. Fla. Nov. 15, 2018) (declining to enjoin enforcement of laws permitting extension of the election returns reporting deadline only in an “emergency”); Namphy v. DeSantis, 493 F.Supp.3d 1130, 1145 (N.D. Fla. 2020) (recognizing “Florida's interest in preventing chaos” in its elections and declining to extend voter registration deadline after Florida had taken some steps to remedy the issue in that case).

Sometimes, however, Florida goes too far. See, e.g., Fla. Democratic Party v. Scott, 215 F.Supp.3d 1250, 1254 (N.D. Fla. 2016) (granting temporary injunction extending voter registration deadline in the wake of Hurricane Matthew); Madera v. Detzner, 325 F.Supp.3d 1269, 1273 (N.D. Fla. 2018) (ordering Florida officials to


provide language assistance to Puerto Rican voters); League of Women Voters of Fla., Inc., v. Detzner, 314 F.Supp.3d 1205, 1210 (N.D. Fla. 2018) (enjoining categorical bar on early voting on any university or college campus).

But even then, Florida has often accepted this Court's ruling and endeavored to fix the deficiency. See, e.g., Fla. Democratic Party v. Scott, No. 4:16cv626-MW/CAS, 2016 WL 6080225, at *1 (N.D. Fla. Oct. 12, 2016) (noting that “Defendants took no position” on the entry of a preliminary injunction further extending voter registration deadline). Compare also Fla. Democratic Party v. Detzner, No. 4:16cv607-MW/CAS, 2016 WL 6090943, at *1 (N.D. Fla. Oct. 16, 2016) (enjoining enforcement of § 101.68, Fla. Stat. (2016), which allowed voters who did not sign an absentee ballot an opportunity to cure but denied that opportunity to voters whose signature did not match signature on file), with Ch. 2017-45, § 1, at 1-5 (amending § 101.68, Fla. Stat. (2016) to fix the problems identified by this Court); compare Democratic Exec. Comm. of Fla. v. Detzner, 347 F.Supp.3d 1017, 1022 (N.D. Fla. 2018) (again holding unconstitutional § 101.68, Fla. Stat. (2017) as to mismatched signatures on vote-by-mail and provisional ballots), with Ch. 2019-162, § 8, at 6-10, Laws of Fla. (again amending § 101.68, Fla. Stat. to fix the problems identified by this Court); compare Namphy, 493 F.Supp.3d at 1146 (criticizing Florida's failure to maintain its online voter registration system after the system crashed on the last day of registration), with Ch. 2021-11,


§ 9, at 5, Law of Fla. (requiring “[l]oad testing and stress testing to ensure that the online voter registration system has sufficient capacity to accommodate foreseeable use, including [during] . . . the week immediately preceding the book-closing deadline for an election”).[4]

In sum, this Court must scrutinize the challenged laws. But it must also stay mindful-as it always has-that the question is not whether this Court thinks those laws are good policy; the question is whether they violate federal law.


At trial, following the close of Plaintiffs' evidence, Defendants moved for judgment on partial findings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(c), arguing that Plaintiffs had failed to set forth sufficient evidence to support their


claims. After a party has been fully heard on an issue during a bench trial, Rule 52(c) permits a court to enter judgment on a claim or defense that “can be maintained or defeated only with a favorable finding on that issue.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 52(c); see also JDI Holdings, LLC v. Jet Mgmt., Inc., 732 F.Supp.2d 1205, 1209 (N.D. Fla. 2010). When facing a Rule 52(c) motion, “the court does not view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, as it would in passing on a Rule 56 motion for summary judgment or a Rule 50(a) motion for judgment as a matter of law; instead, it exercises its role as factfinder.” United States v. $242, 484.00, 389 F.3d 1149, 1172 (11th Cir. 2004); see also Chris Berg, Inc. v. Acme Mining Co., 893 F.2d 1235, 1238 n.2 (11th Cir. 1990) (“[T]he court must weigh the evidence and may consider the witnesses' credibility.”). Any “judgment on partial findings must be supported by findings of fact and conclusions of law as required by Rule 52(a), but the court may “decline to render any judgment until the close of the evidence.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 52(c). Here, this...

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