Tex. Democratic Party v. Abbott

Decision Date04 June 2020
Docket NumberNo. 20-50407,20-50407
Parties TEXAS DEMOCRATIC PARTY; Gilberto Hinojosa; Joseph Daniel Cascino; Shanda Marie Sansing; Brenda Li Garcia, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. Greg ABBOTT, Governor of the State of Texas; Ruth Hughs, Texas Secretary of State; Ken Paxton, Texas Attorney General, Defendants–Appellants.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit

Chad Wilson Dunn, Esq., Brazil & Dunn, Austin, TX, Kembel Scott Brazil, Brazil & Dunn, L.L.P., Houston, TX, Martin Golando, San Antonio, TX, Richard Alan Grigg, Attorney, Dicky Grigg, P.C., Austin, TX, for Plaintiffs-Appellees

Kyle Douglas Hawkins, Michael Abrams, Lanora Christine Pettit, Office of the Attorney General, Office of the Solicitor General, Austin, TX, for Defendants-Appellants

Samuel Spital, Leah Camille Aden, Esq., Sherrilyn Ann Ifill, Janai S. Nelson, Esq., Deuel Ross, Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Incorporated, New York, NY, Mahogane Denea Reed, NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Incorporated, Washington, DC, for Amicus Curiae NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Incorporated

Leslie Wood Dippel, Sherine Elizabeth Thomas, Assistant County Attorney, Cynthia Wilson Veidt, County Attorney's Office for the County of Travis, Austin, TX, for Amicus Curiae Dana DeBeauvoir

Amy Leila Saberian, Michael S. Truesdale, Esq., Enoch Kever, P.L.L.C., Austin, TX, for Amicus Curiae Healthcare Professionals

Hartson Dustin Fillmore, III, Fillmore Law Firm, L.L.P., Fort Worth, TX, for TARRANT COUNTY REPUBLICAN PARTY

Susan Lea Hays, Esq., Law Office of Susan Hays, P.C., Austin, TX, Scott Allen Lemond, Esq., General Counsel, Harris County Housing Authority, Houston, TX, for Amicus Curiae Harris County, Texas

Richard Warren Mithoff, Jr., Esq., Mithoff Law Firm, Houston, TX, Marianne W. Nitsch, Pieter M. Schenkkan, Esq., Attorney, Graves, Dougherty, Hearon & Moody, P.C., Austin, TX, for Amici Curiae Admiral Charles S Abbot, William J. Boatman, General Wesley K. Clark, Donald P. Dorsey, Joe R. Reeder

Elizabeth Baker Murrill, Esq., Assistant Attorney General, Office of the Attorney General for the State of Louisiana, Baton Rouge, LA, for Amici Curiae State of Louisiana, State of Mississippi

Before SMITH, COSTA, and HO, Circuit Judges.

JERRY E. SMITH, Circuit Judge:

The United States is mired in a pandemic involving a virus that can cause serious illness and sometimes death. Local officials are working tirelessly to "shap[e] their response to changing facts on the ground," knowing that the appropriate response is "subject to reasonable disagreement." S. Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom , No. 19A1044, ––– U.S. ––––, 140 S.Ct. 1613, 207 L.Ed.2d 154 (U.S. May 29, 2020) (mem.) (Roberts, C.J., concurring in the denial of injunctive relief).

"Our Constitution principally entrusts [t]he safety and the health of the people to the politically accountable officials of the States ‘to guard and protect.’ " Id. (quoting Jacobson v. Massachusetts , 197 U.S. 11, 38, 25 S.Ct. 358, 49 L.Ed. 643 (1905) ). Either overlooking or disagreeing with that admonition, the district judge a quo suspects that—referring to the defendant state officials—"[t]here are some among us who would, if they could, nullify" the promises of the Declaration of Independence and "forfeit[ ] the vision of America as a shining city upon a hill." He resolves to take matters into his own hands.

In an order that will be remembered more for audacity than legal reasoning, the district judge intervenes just weeks before an election, entering a sweeping preliminary injunction that requires state officials, inter alia , to distribute mail-in ballots to any eligible voter who wants one. But because the spread of the Virus1 has not given "unelected federal jud[ges]"2 a roving commission to rewrite state election codes, we stay the preliminary injunction pending appeal.

I.

To help ensure the health of Texas voters while protecting the integrity of the state's elections, Governor Greg Abbott declared that, among other things, the May 2020 primary runoff elections would be postponed to July 14, 2020; that the period for "early voting by personal appearance" would be doubled; and that election officials would issue further guidance to election workers and voters on social distancing and other precautionary measures.3

The plaintiffs—the Texas Democratic Party, its chair, and various individual voters—allege that such actions aren't enough. They sued Texas Governor Greg Abbott, Secretary of State Ruth Hughs, and Attorney General Ken Paxton,4 in state court, seeking injunctive and declaratory relief that, as a matter of Texas law, those eligible to vote by mail include all "eligible voter[s], regardless of age and physical condition ... if they believe they should practice social distancing in order to hinder the known or unknown spread of a virus or disease." Specifically, the plaintiffs claimed, such voters suffer from a "disability" under Texas election law because a lack of immunity to the Virus constitutes a "physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day without a likelihood of ... injuring the voter's health." TEX. ELEC. CODE § 82.002.

Thus began within the Texas judiciary a saga of sorts. First, the state trial court granted the plaintiffs a preliminary injunction. Texas intervened and filed a notice of interlocutory appeal, which, under Texas law, superseded and stayed the injunction.5

Weeks later, General Paxton issued a statement directed at "County Judges and County Election Officials," writing that

[b]ased on the plain language of the relevant statutory text, fear of contracting [the Virus] unaccompanied by a qualifying sickness or physical condition does not constitute a disability under the Texas Election Code for purposes of receiving a ballot by mail. Accordingly, public officials shall not advise voters who lack a qualifying sickness or physical condition to vote by mail in response to [the Virus]....
To the extent third parties advise voters to apply for a ballot by mail for reasons not authorized by the Election Code, including fear of contracting [the Virus] without an accompanying qualifying disability, such activity could subject those third parties to criminal sanctions [citing TEX. ELEC. CODE §§ 84.0041, 276.013 ].

The plaintiffs successfully moved the Texas Court of Appeals to reinstate the injunction, which the Texas Supreme Court stayed pending its resolution of the state's mandamus petition.

Shortly thereafter, the plaintiffs filed this case against Governor Abbott, General Paxton, Secretary Hughs, the Travis County Clerk, and the Bexar County Elections Administrator. The plaintiffs claim that Texas's rules for voting by mail (1) discriminate by age in violation of equal protection and the Twenty-Sixth Amendment; (2) restrict political speech under the First Amendment; and (3) are unconstitutionally vague.6 The plaintiffs further posit that General Paxton's open letter was a threat constituting voter intimidation, an act in furtherance of a conspiracy to deny the plaintiffs’ civil rights. See 42 U.S.C. § 1985. The plaintiffs seek a declaration to such effect and an injunction preventing the state officials from enforcing Texas's vote-by-mail rules as written.

Quoting the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, the Bible, and various poems, the district court, on May 19, 2020, granted the plaintiffs a preliminary injunction ordering that "[a]ny eligible Texas voter who seeks to vote by mail in order to avoid transmission of [the Virus]"—which, as the district court itself recognizes, would effectively be every Texas voter—"can apply for, receive, and cast an absentee ballot in upcoming elections during the pendency of pandemic circumstances." Further, the court enjoined the state officials from "issuing any guidance, pronouncements, threats of criminal prosecution or orders, or otherwise taking any actions inconsistent with [its] Order."

The district court suggests that, by requiring able-bodied, young voters who are present in the county to visit the polls in person when they may possibly contract the Virus (notwithstanding doubled early voting and other precautionary measures), the state officials wished "to return to the not so halcyon and not so thrilling days of yesteryear of the Divine Right of Kings," "the doctrine that kings have absolute power because they were placed on their thrones by God and therefore rebellion against the monarch [was] always a sin." "One's right to vote should not be elusively based on the whims of nature," the court opined, and therefore "[c]itizens should have the option to" vote by mail. Otherwise, according to the district court, "our democracy and the Republic would be lost and government of the people, by the people and for the people [should] perish from the earth."7

In support, the district court held that the plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of all their claims. As for the age-related claims, the court opined that accommodating older voters with the option to vote by mail but requiring younger voters to vote in person "disproportionate[ly] burden[s]" younger voters without any conceivably "rational basis" or "any legitimate or reasonable [state] interest," evincing only that "older voters [are] valued more than [their] fellow citizens of younger age."

Regarding the vagueness claims, the court noted—without waiting (predictably for only a few days) for the Texas Supreme Court to interpret its own state's election law—that "[t]he multiple constructions of [the Texas Election Code] by [General] Paxton and the state court fail to provide people of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to understand if they are unqualified to access a mail ballot."

Finally, the court concluded that General Paxton's statements publicly disagreeing with the Texas lower courts and accordingly informing election officials likely constituted voter intimidation and an unconstitutional restriction of ...

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