Excerpts from federal judge’s decision to dismiss lawsuit
The following are excerpts from U.S. District Judge Matthew W. Brann’s dismissal of the lawsuit pursued by Donald J. Trump for President Inc. and others. Brann dismissed the lawsuit, which alleged irregularities in how mail-in ballots could be “cured” or altered by voters to comply with state law violated the Fourteenth Amendment, about a week ago.
In this action, the Trump Campaign and the Individual Plaintiffs (collectively, the “Plaintiffs”) seek to discard millions of votes legally cast by Pennsylvanians from all corners – from Greene County to Pike County, and everywhere in between. In other words, Plaintiffs ask this Court to disenfranchise almost seven million voters. This Court has been unable to find any case in which a plaintiff has sought such a drastic remedy in the contest of an election, in terms of the sheer volume of votes asked to be invalidated.
One might expect that when seeking such a startling outcome, a plaintiff would come formidably armed with compelling legal arguments and factual proof of rampant corruption, such that this Court would have no option but to regrettably grant the proposed injunctive relief despite the impact it would have on such a large group of citizens.
That has not happened. Instead, this Court has been presented with strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations, unpled in the operative complaint and unsupported by evidence. In the United States of America, this cannot justify the disenfranchisement of a single voter, let alone all the voters of its sixth most populated state. Our people, laws, and institutions demand more. At bottom, Plaintiffs have failed to meet their burden to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. Therefore, I grant Defendants’ motions and dismiss Plaintiffs’ action with prejudice.
The power to regulate and administer federal elections arises from the Constitution. “Because any state authority to regulate election to those offices could not precede their very creation by the Constitution, such power ‘had to be delegated to, rather than reserved to by, the States.'” Consequently, the Elections Clause “delegated to the States the power to regulate the ‘Times, Places, and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives,’ subject to a grant of authority to Congress to ‘make or alter such Regulations.'” Accordingly, States’ power to “regulate the incidents of such elections, including balloting” is limited to “the exclusive delegation of power under the Elections Clause.”
Pennsylvania regulates the “times, places, and manner” of its elections through the Pennsylvania Election Code. The Commonwealth’s Constitution mandates that “[e]lections shall be free and equal; and no power, civil or military, shall at any time interfere to prevent the free exercise of the right of suffrage.”
Recognizing this as a foundational principle, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has declared that the purpose of the Election Code is to promote “freedom of choice, a fair election and an honest election return.”
In October 2019, the General Assembly of Pennsylvania enacted Act 77, which, “for the first time in Pennsylvania,” extended the opportunity for all registered voters to vote by mail. Following the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020, the General Assembly enacted laws regulating the mail-in voting system. Section 3150.16 of the Election Code sets forth procedural requirements that voters must follow in order for their ballot to be counted.
Plaintiffs lack standing to raise either of their claims. “Article III of the United States Constitution limits the power of the federal judiciary to ‘cases’ and ‘controversies.'” To satisfy the case-or-controversy requirement, a plaintiff must establish that they have standing. Standing is a “threshold” issue. It is an “irreducible constitutional minimum,” without which a federal court lacks jurisdiction to rule on the merits of an action. Consequently, federal courts are obligated to raise the issue of standing sua sponte.
The plaintiff bears the burden of establishing standing. To demonstrate standing, he must show: (1) an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision. “In assessing whether a plaintiff has carried this burden, [courts must] separate [the] standing inquiry from any assessment of the merits of the plaintiff’s claim.” “To maintain this fundamental separation between standing and merits at the dismissal stage, [courts] assume for the purposes of [the] standing inquiry that a plaintiff has stated valid legal claims.” “While [the Court’s] standing inquiry may necessarily reference the ‘nature and source of the claims asserted,’ [the Court’s] focus remains on whether the plaintiff is the proper party to bring those claims.”
As discussed above, Plaintiffs allege two possible theories of standing. First, Individual Plaintiffs argue that their votes have been unconstitutionally denied. Under this theory, Individual Plaintiffs must show that Defendant Counties’ use of the notice-and-cure procedure, as well as Secretary Boockvar’s authorization of this procedure, denied Individual Plaintiffs the right to vote.
Second, the Trump Campaign maintains that it has competitive standing. Both theories are unavailing. Assuming, as this Court must, that Plaintiffs state a valid equal-protection claim, the Court finds that Individual Plaintiffs have adequately established an injury-in-fact. However, they fail to establish that it was Defendants who caused these injuries and that their purported injury of vote-denial is adequately redressed by invalidating the votes of others. The Trump Campaign’s theory also fails because neither competitive nor associational standing applies, and it does not assert another cognizable theory of standing.
The standing inquiry as to the Trump Campaign is particularly nebulous because neither in the FAC nor in its briefing does the Trump Campaign clearly assert what its alleged injury is. Instead, the Court was required to embark on an extensive project of examining almost every case cited to by Plaintiffs to piece together the theory of standing as to this Plaintiff – the Trump Campaign. The Trump Campaign first posits that “as a political committee for a federal candidate,” it has “Article III standing to bring this action.” On its face, this claim is incorrect. Simply being a political committee does not obviate the need for an injury-in-fact, nor does it automatically satisfy the other two elements of standing.
For this proposition, the Trump Campaign relies on two federal cases where courts found associational standing by a political party’s state committee. Therefore, the Court considers whether the Trump Campaign can raise associational standing, but finds that those cases are inapposite. First, a candidate’s political committee and a political party’s state committee are not the same thing. Second, while the doctrine of associational standing is well established, the Trump Campaign overlooks a particularly relevant, very recent decision from another federal court – one where the Trump Campaign itself argued that it had associational standing. In Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. v. Cegavske, the Trump Campaign asserted associational standing, and that court rejected this theory.
Even if Plaintiffs had standing, they fail to state an equal-protection claim. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment commands that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The principle of equal protection is fundamental to our legal system because, at its core, it protects the People from arbitrary discrimination at the hands of the State.
But, contrary to Plaintiffs’ assertions, not all “unequal treatment” requires Court intervention. The Equal Protection Clause “does not forbid classifications.” It simply keeps governmental decisionmakers from treating similarly situated persons differently. The government could not function if complete equality were required in all situations. Consequently, a classification resulting in “some inequality” will be upheld unless it is based on an inherently suspect characteristic or “jeopardizes the exercise of a fundamental right.”
Granting Plaintiffs’ requested relief would necessarily require invalidating the ballots of every person who voted in Pennsylvania. Because this Court has no authority to take away the right to vote of even a single person, let alone millions of citizens, it cannot grant Plaintiffs’ requested relief.
Plaintiffs’ brief in opposition to the motions to dismiss spends only one paragraph discussing the merits of its equal-protection claim. Plaintiffs raise two arguments as to how equal protection was violated. The first is that “Defendants excluded Republican/Trump observers from the canvass so that they would not observe election law violations.” The second claims that the “use of notice/cure procedures violated equal protection because it was deliberately done in counties where defendants knew that mail ballots would favor Biden/Democrats.” The former finds no support in the operative pleading, and neither states an equalprotection violation.
Count I of the FAC makes no mention of disparity in treatment of observers based on which campaign they represented. Instead, Count I discusses the use of “standardless” procedures. These are two separate theories of an equal protection violation. That deficiency aside, to the extent this new theory is even pled, Plaintiffs fail to plausibly plead that there was “uneven treatment” of Trump and Biden watchers and representatives.