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  Court Watch - Legal News


Harvard does not discriminate against Asian American applicants, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday in a decision that offers relief to other colleges that consider race in admissions, but also sets the stage for a potential review by an increasingly conservative U.S. Supreme Court.

The decision came from two judges on the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston who rejected claims from an anti-affirmative action group that accused the Ivy League University of imposing a “racial penalty” on Asian Americans. The judges upheld a previous ruling clearing Harvard of discrimination when choosing students.

It delivers a blow to the suit’s plaintiff, Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit that aims to eliminate the use of race in college admissions. In a statement, the group’s president, Edward Blum, said he was disappointed but that “our hope is not lost.”

“This lawsuit is now on track to go up to the U.S. Supreme Court where we will ask the justices to end these unfair and unconstitutional race-based admissions policies at Harvard and all colleges and universities,” Blum said.

Both sides have been preparing for a possible review by the Supreme Court, and some legal scholars say the issue is ripe to be revisited.

Filed in 2014, the lawsuit has revived a national debate about race’s role in college admissions. In multiple decisions spanning decades, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that colleges can consider race as a limited factor in order to promote campus diversity. But the practice faces mounting challenges in the courts, including three suits from Students from Fair Admissions.

Many elite colleges consider applicants’ race and give an edge to some underrepresented students to promote diversity on campus. The Trump administration has opposed the practice and backed the lawsuit against Harvard. In October, the Justice Department filed a similar suit accusing Yale University of discriminating against Asian American and white applicants.


Signature matches. Late-arriving absentee votes. Drop boxes. Secrecy envelopes. Democratic and Republican lawyers already have gone to court over these issues in the run-up to Tuesday’s election. But the legal fights could take on new urgency, not to mention added vitriol, if a narrow margin in a battleground state is the difference between another four years for President Donald Trump or a Joe Biden administration.

Both sides say they’re ready, with thousands of lawyers on standby to march into court to make sure ballots get counted, or excluded.  Since the 2000 presidential election, which was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court, both parties have enlisted legal teams to prepare for the unlikely event that voting wouldn’t settle the contest. But this year, there is a near presumption that legal fights will ensue and that only a definitive outcome is likely to forestall them.

The candidates and parties have enlisted prominent lawyers with ties to Democratic and Republican administrations. A Pennsylvania case at the Supreme Court pits Donald Verrilli, who was President Barack Obama’s top Supreme Court lawyer, against John Gore, a onetime high-ranking Trump Justice Department official.

It’s impossible to know where, or even if, a problem affecting the ultimate result will arise. But existing lawsuits in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Minnesota and Nevada offer some hint of the states most likely to be ground zero in a post-election battle and the kinds of issues that could tie the outcome in knots.

Roughly 300 lawsuits already have been filed over the election in dozens of states across the country, many involving changes to normal procedures because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 230,000 people in the U.S. and sickened more than 9 million.

Most of the potential legal challenges are likely to stem from the huge increase in absentee balloting brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. In Pennsylvania, elections officials won’t start processing those ballots until Election Day, and some counties have said they won’t begin counting those votes until the following day. Mailed ballots that don’t come inside a secrecy envelope have to be discarded, under a state Supreme Court ruling.

“I still can’t figure how counting and verifying absentee ballots is going to go in some of the battleground states like Pennsylvania,” said Ohio State University law professor Edward Foley, an election law expert.

The deadline for receiving and counting absentee ballots is Friday, an extension ordered by the Pennsylvania’s top court. The Supreme Court left that order in place in response to a Republican effort to block it. But several conservative justices indicated they’d be open to taking the issue up after the election, especially if those late-arriving ballots could mean the difference in the state.



North Carolina, yes. Pennsylvania, yes. Wisconsin, no. That’s how the Supreme Court has answered questions in recent days about an extended timeline for receiving and counting ballots in those states. In each case, Democrats backed the extensions and Republicans opposed them. All three states have Democratic governors and legislatures controlled by the GOP.

At first blush, the difference in the outcomes at the Supreme Court seems odd because the high court typically takes up issues to harmonize the rules across the country. But elections are largely governed by states, and the rules differ from one state to the next.

A big asterisk: These cases are being dealt with on an emergency basis in which the court issues orders that either block or keep in place a lower-court ruling. But there is almost never an explanation of the majority’s rationale, though individual justices sometimes write opinions that partially explain the matter

There also is a difference in how the justices act based on whether they are ruling on a lawsuit that began in state or federal court.

Conservative justices who hold a majority on the Supreme Court object to what they see as intrusions by federal judges who order last-minute changes to state election rules, even in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. The power to alter absentee ballot deadlines and other voting issues rests with state legislatures, not federal courts, according to the conservative justices.

The court also is divided, but so far has been willing to allow state courts interpreting their own state constitutions to play more of a role than their federal counterparts.

Last week, four conservative justices would have put on hold a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling allowing three additional days to receive and count mailed ballots. Three justices in Wednesday’s order about North Carolina’s absentee ballots would have blocked a six-day extension.

The justices did not finally resolve the legal issues involved, but they could do so after the election. A more thorough examination could come either in a post-election challenge that could determine the presidential winner if, for example, Pennsylvania proves critical to the national outcome, or in a less tense setting that might not affect the 2020 vote, but would apply in the future.



Republican claims that Democrats would expand the U.S. Supreme Court to undercut the conservative majority if they win the presidency and control of Congress has a familiar ring. It's a tactic the GOP already has employed in recent years with state supreme courts when they have controlled all levers of state political power.

Republican governors in Arizona and Georgia have signed bills passed by GOP-dominated legislatures to expand the number of seats on their states’ respective high courts. In Iowa, the Republican governor gained greater leverage over the commission that names judicial nominees.

“The arguments being advanced now by Republican leaders — that this is an affront to separation of powers, that this is a way of delegitimizing courts — those don’t seem to be holding at the state level,” said Marin Levy, a law professor at Duke University who has written about efforts to expand state high courts.

President Donald Trump and the GOP have seized on the issue in the final weeks of the presidential race, arguing that Democratic nominee Joe Biden would push a Democratic Congress to increase the number of seats on the Supreme Court and fill those with liberal justices.

Some on the left have floated the idea in the wake of Republicans' rush to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to fill the seat of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal icon who died last month.  Biden, for his part, has said he's not a fan of so-called “court packing,” and it's far from certain that Democrats can win back the majority in the U.S. Senate.

Arizona's governor, Republican Doug Ducey, said he opposes adding seats to the U.S. Supreme Court. "We shouldn’t be changing our institutions,” he told reporters recently. Yet Ducey signed a bill that did just that at the state level in 2016, expanding the Arizona Supreme Court from five seats to seven. As a result, Ducey has appointed more judges than any other governor in the state's history.

Ducey said the situations are not the same because Arizona’s system for selecting judges allows him to appoint them only from a list sent to him by a commission that interviews and vets candidates.



The Supreme Court on Wednesday put on hold a lower court order that would have permitted curbside voting in Alabama in November.

The justices' vote was 5-3, with the court's three liberals dissenting. As is typical when the Supreme Court acts on an emergency basis, the justices in the majority did not explain their decision. It was not clear how many counties might have offered curbside voting, allowing people to vote from their car by handing their ballot to a poll worker.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a dissent joined by Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Elena Kagan, described the lower court's order allowing curbside voting in November as “modest,” and she said she would not have put it on hold.

“It does not require all counties to adopt curbside voting; it simply gives prepared counties the option to do so. This remedy respects both the right of voters with disabilities to vote safely and the State’s interest in orderly elections,” she said, noting that 28 states permit curbside voting.

The decision stemmed from a lawsuit the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program filed on behalf of voters with health issues who were concerned about the risk of COVID-19 at the polls.

The state’s Republican attorney general and secretary of state sought to block a lower court's ruling in the case that would have let counties offer curbside voting. Lawyers for the state argued that since Alabama does not have a law expressly permitting curbside voting, that it should not be allowed.

“I am very enthusiastic that the Supreme Court of the United States has seen fit to secure Alabama’s election integrity by ruling as to the letter and the spirit of the law," Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said in a telephone interview.


Absentee ballots must arrive by Election Day to be counted, the Michigan Court of Appeals said Friday, blocking a 14-day extension that had been ordered by a lower court and embraced by key Democratic officials in a battleground state. Any changes must rest with the Legislature, not the judiciary, the Republican-appointed appeals court judges said in a 3-0 opinion.

Absentee ballot extensions in Wisconsin and Indiana have also been overturned by higher courts. Michigan’s ability to handle a flood of ballots will be closely watched in a state that was narrowly won by President Donald Trump in 2016. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson last week said 2.7 million people had requested absentee ballots, a result of a change in law that makes them available to any voter.

Michigan law says absentee ballots must be turned in by 8 p.m. on Election Day to be valid. But Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stephens had ordered that any ballots postmarked by Nov. 2 could be counted if they arrived within two weeks after the Nov. 3 election.

Stephens said there was “unrefuted evidence” about mail delivery problems because of the coronavirus pandemic. She said more than 6,400 ballots arrived too late to be counted in the August primary. The appeals court, however, said the pandemic and any delivery woes “are not attributable to the state.”

“Although those factors may complicate plaintiffs’ voting process, they do not automatically amount to a loss of the right to vote absentee,” the court said, noting that hundreds of special boxes have been set up across Michigan.  The court also reversed another portion of Stephens’ decision, which would have allowed a non-family member to deliver a completed ballot in the final days before the election if a voter consented.

“The constitution is not suspended or transformed even in times of a pandemic, and judges do not somehow become authorized in a pandemic to rewrite statutes or to displace the decisions made by the policymaking branches of government,” Judge Mark Boonstra said in a separate, 10-page concurring opinion.

Benson and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, both Democrats, had declined to appeal Stephens’ rulings, leaving it to the Republican-controlled Legislature to intervene.


Pennsylvania’s highest court granted a request Wednesday to wade into a fight over whether counties should count mail-in ballots when a voter’s signature doesn’t necessarily match the one on their registration. In its brief order, the state Supreme Court said it will decide the matter after a filings deadline in the case on Friday.

In guidance last month to counties, Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, a Democrat, told them that state law does not require or permit them to reject a mail-in ballot solely over a perceived signature inconsistency. After President Donald Trump’s campaign contested that guidance in a federal court case, Boockvar asked the court to back up her guidance.

Rejection of ballots over signatures poses “a grave risk of disenfranchisement on an arbitrary and wholly subjective basis,” Boockvar’s court filing said. Trump’s campaign asked a federal judge to declare that Boockvar’s guidance is unconstitutional and to block counties from following that guidance. The judge dismissed the case on Saturday.

However, state Republican lawmakers oppose Boockvar’s guidance to counties, saying in court filings that it would “rewrite existing law,” while disrupting Pennsylvania’s “clear and unambiguously crafted procedures for determining and challenging the validity” of a mail-in or absentee ballot. Boockvar’s guidance to counties comes amid a surge in mail-in voting and rising concerns that tens of thousands of mail-in ballots will be discarded in the presidential election over a variety of technicalities.

The fight over signatures is one of many partisan battles  being fought in the state Legislature and the courts over mail-in voting in Pennsylvania, amid warnings that a presidential election result will hang in limbo for days on a drawn-out vote count in Pennsylvania. After President Donald Trump’s campaign contested that guidance in a federal court case, Boockvar asked the court to back up her guidance.

Rejection of ballots over signatures poses “a grave risk of disenfranchisement on an arbitrary and wholly subjective basis,” Boockvar’s court filing said. Trump’s campaign asked a federal judge to declare that Boockvar’s guidance is unconstitutional and to block counties from following that guidance. The judge dismissed the case on Saturday. However, state Republican lawmakers oppose Boockvar’s guidance to counties, saying in court filings that it would “rewrite existing law,” while disrupting Pennsylvania’s “clear and unambiguously crafted procedures for determining and challenging the validity” of a mail-in or absentee ballot.

Boockvar’s guidance to counties comes amid a surge in mail-in voting and rising concerns that tens of thousands of mail-in ballots will be discarded in the presidential election over a variety of technicalities. The fight over signatures is one of many partisan battles  being fought in the state Legislature and the courts over mail-in voting in Pennsylvania, amid warnings that a presidential election result will hang in limbo for days on a drawn-out vote count in Pennsylvania.

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