Tuesday, December 13, 2016
Pennsylvania recount rejected
On Monday, District Judge Diamond of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania dismissed the action filed by Jill Stein seeking a recount in Pennsylvania. (H/T: Arthur Hellman of Pitt, who recommends it as a possible Fed Courts final). The court found Stein and a voter co-plaintiff lacked standing and also dismissed on both Younger and Rooker-Feldman grounds. Some thoughts after the jump, but with one umbrella conclusion: This is a nice illustration of courts using jurisdiction and justiciability, mostly incorrectly, to avoid the merits of a dicey case.1) Stein lacked standing because she would not win even if a recount were ordered, meaning she cannot show an injury-in-fact or redressability. The voter lacked standing because he could not show that his vote was hacked or improperly tabulated. The possibility of hacking because voting machines were "hackable" was too speculative to support an injury.
The surprising piece of this was the court's unwillingness, without much explanation, to accord Stein third-party standing to sue on behalf of voters, as a district court in Florida did during the campaign. Campaigns and candidates often are accorded third-party standing to challenge state laws impinging on the right of members of the public to vote. But the court dismissed such standing as a plaintiff asserting someone else's generalized grievance. It seems the court could not get past the fact that Stein could not win Pennsylvania, no matter what, and thus was not a "proper" plaintiff. So, absent a change in result to favor the named plaintiff, any violations of the rights of individual voters did not matter. But I wonder if future candidates will now have to show some chance of success in establishing standing.
2) The Rooker-Feldman analysis was problematic. Stein and the voters initially filed an action in state court seeking a recount; they voluntarily withdrew that action when the court, pursuant to state law, required them to post a $ 1 million bond. In federal court, plaintiffs acknowledged that the state-court decision was effectively a decision not to allow the recount. But the federal action did not challenge or seek review of the state-court decision to require the bond; it challenged the state law requiring such a bond in any court, along with a number of other provisions of state election law. The plaintiffs complained of the statutory bond requirement, not the state-court decision imposing that bond. And the remedy they sought--a declaration of unconstitutionality of various state laws and a recount--was not a result of the state-court judgment. That distinction--between a challenge to the state decision enforcing a law and a challenge to the validity of the law itself--existed in Feldman itself--the Court held that jurisdiction was lacking over the challenge to the bar-admission decision, but not to the underlying bar-admission regulation.
3) The Younger analysis was flat-out wrong. The court dutifully recited the three-prong test from Middlesex County, but it ignored Sprint, which held that Younger required abstention in deference to only three types of cases: 1) pending criminal proceedings; 2) pending quasi-criminal proceedings initiated by the state (e.g., state public nuisance lawsuits); and 3) "certain orders . . . uniquely in furtherance of the state courts' ability to perform their judicial functions" (e.g., contempt orders). The pending proceedings were actions before several state trial courts and county election boards. None of these was initiated by the state, none was criminal or quasi-criminal, and none involved state efforts to enforce its own laws. And the third category does not fit, because a federal injunction against the enforcement of the challenged state laws would not interfere with the ability of state courts to function.
4) The court ignored the two better arguments for getting rid of the case. As to the bond order, this seems to be simply a matter of preclusion--plaintiffs bringing in federal court the same claims they brought (and had rejected) in state court. I do not know if preclusion was warranted, but that should have been the focus of the analysis. But that does not reflect a jurisdictional defect. And recent SCOTUS decisions have explicitly urged courts not to conflate the jurisdictional defects involved with Rooker-Feldman with common law preclusion limitations on relitigation.
As to the still-pending state actions, Colorado River abstention exists for this very situation--concurrent and parallel proceedings. True, Colorado makes clear that abstention on these grounds is the exception rather than the rule and the typical approach to parallel state and federal proceedings is to let both actions go and give preclusive effect to whichever finishes first. Still, Judge Diamond seemed pretty determined to abstain--it would have been better to abstain on grounds that made sense.
Heh, I suppose we have an argument here for *increasing* the lame-duck period, to give the judicial process more time to refine decisions regarding re-counts. The finer points aside though, isn't the point of standing doctrine to insure that the plaintiff is sufficiently motivated to win the case and therefore creates a proper adversarial process? To me, Stein appears to have been motivated more by her fundraising bonanza than concern for vote integrity. How much patience should a judge have for having his court used as a publicity gimmick? Is a carefully reasoned opinion here really worth the talent and time, when there are so many real controversies to be solved?
Posted by: M. Rad. | Dec 18, 2016 10:43:07 PM