At Supreme Court, no reprieve for GOP in voting rights consent decree

US Supreme Court on Monday turned aside a petition from the Republican National Committee to lift a 30-year-old consent decree. The decree requires the RNC to refrain from tactics that could suppress voting rights.

Alex Brandon/AP/File
Workers cover the US Supreme Court building in Washington, in this September 2012 file photo, with a protective scrim, as work continues on the facade.

The US Supreme Court declined on Monday to take up a request by the Republican National Committee to lift a 30-year-old consent decree that restricts the political party’s ability to enforce preelection ballot security programs that critics say would result in minority voter suppression.

The high court, without comment, turned aside the Republican Party’s petition.

At issue was a consent decree dating from 1982 involving allegations that Republicans had attempted to intimidate and suppress black and Hispanic voters in New Jersey in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

Similar allegations arose during the recent presidential election, with Republicans emphasizing the need to counter potential voter fraud and Democrats accusing Republicans of seeking to disenfranchise minority voters. The same fundamental difference in perspective is at the center of the legal dispute over the long-time consent decree.

In that case, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) filed suit in federal court in New Jersey challenging the Republican tactics. The case never went to trial. Instead, the Republican National Committee (RNC) agreed to abide by a consent decree that required it to refrain from preelection tactics that might deter qualified voters from casting ballots.

The decree was approved by a federal judge and has remained in place ever since, with some modifications.

In November 2008, the Republican Party sought to lift the consent decree to allow party officials more flexibility in pursuing election security programs. The judge, Dickinson Debevoise, rejected the effort. That ruling was upheld by the Third US Circuit Court of Appeals.

In urging the high court to examine whether the decree is still warranted, lawyers for the Republican Party said the arrangement had become onerous for the RNC.

“The ability of the Republican Party, as one of two national political parties, to conduct effective election observation programs is of national importance,” Bobby Burchfield wrote in his petition to the high court.

He said statutes in 21 states permit political parties to engage in “poll watching activities for the purpose of detecting and reporting fraud.”

DNC lawyers argued that the high court should allow the consent decree to remain in place. Evidence presented during the 2008 and 2009 litigation over the decree showed that the order is still needed today, they said.

“That evidence includes proof that the RNC violated the Decree in 1990 and in 2004, when it created voter challenge lists that targeted minority voters; that between 1997 and 2008, Republican candidates and party organizations had engaged in separate voter suppression activities in various states, including Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin; and that the racially polarized voting that influenced the RNC in the 1980s persists today,” Angelo Genova wrote in his brief to the court.

“This substantial evidence stands in stark contrast to the RNC’s proffered ‘evidence,’ “ Mr. Genova added. He said the Republicans had made a “preposterous claim that because President Obama, Attorney General [Eric] Holder, and former RNC leaders Michael Steele and Boyd Rutherford are African-American, the RNC no longer has any incentive to suppress minority votes in violation of the terms of the Consent Decree.”  

The case was Republican National Committee v. Democratic National Committee (12-373).

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