Another Election Goes to Court

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Andrew M. Grossman

Nov. 6, 2020, in the Wall Street Journal

Whoever first quipped “It’s all over but the counting” forgot about the lawyers. Over the past year, Democrats and their allies marched through state after state in an unprecedented legal campaign to upend longstanding rules of election administration. The result is more uncertainty than ever over the basic rules of voting, and an increased likelihood that races will have to be called by the courts. Although it’s too early to say for certain, that may include the presidential election.

The battle lines are being drawn in states President Trump needs to win. Pennsylvania provides a typical illustration. In 2019 the state overhauled its election code to allow everyone to vote by absentee ballot. What had been a relatively restrictive regime, with early deadlines and limited availability, was transformed into one of the most liberal in the nation, requiring only that ballots be received by the statewide voting deadline, 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Even that wouldn’t hold. After three lawsuits to extend the deadline struck out this summer, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party hit a home run on the fourth at-bat. What changed was that the secretary of state, charged with defending state law, switched sides to support her own political party. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the ballot-receipt deadline, established by state law, violated the state constitution’s “Free and Equal Election Clause” and legislated a three-day extension along with a presumption of timeliness for unpostmarked ballots received by Friday. It dismissed out of hand arguments that the U.S. Constitution’s Elections and Electors clauses vest exclusive authority in state legislatures to set the rules of federal elections that can’t be rewritten by state judges or executive-branch officials.

The U.S. Supreme Court split evenly on requests by the state Republican Party and the GOP-controlled Legislature to block the lower-court ruling—effectively denying them. But both have asked the court to review the case on the merits, and the Trump campaign filed a motion on Wednesday to join that case as a party. If Pennsylvania is close, the Biden campaign will join the other side, creating a 2020 reincarnation of Bush v. Gore.

We’ve come to this pass because of Democratic politicians’ recklessness and the Supreme Court’s timidity. Democrats knew from the beginning that it was risky for state courts to shift the rules of federal elections, because voters might rely on state-court decisions later overturned under federal law. The justices also could have avoided the problem by deciding the issue before Election Day, when voters still had the opportunity to get their ballots in on time according to the rules.

In this case, Chief Justice John Roberts’s inclination to duck politically charged cases may prove self-defeating. If the court has to step in now, after the votes have been cast and counted, a political storm could become a hurricane.

Republicans filed two Election Day lawsuits in Pennsylvania challenging local election officials’ disparate treatment of defective mail-in ballots. While state law doesn’t permit mail-in voters to be notified of defects with their ballots—doing so would interfere with the timing and confidentiality of the counting process—officials in several counties apparently contacted voters to allow them to cure defects. The problem, aside from violating state law, is that this treats voters differently depending on where in the state they live, in contravention of equal-protection principles. It’s little different from the gerrymandered recount the high court rejected in Bush v. Gore.

The backdrop in Arizona is a long-running lawsuit by the Democratic National Committee challenging the state’s requirement (shared by most states) that voters cast their ballots in assigned precincts, along with its prohibition on “ballot harvesting,” the collection of ballots by parties outside the voter’s family or household. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Democrats and enjoined both policies in 2016, but the Supreme Court blocked the injunction a day later, with no recorded dissents.

The litigation dragged on. After a 10-day trial, a district court held that neither of these policies violates the Voting Rights Act. The Ninth Circuit reversed, but it stayed its own decision, anticipating that the Supreme Court would do so if it didn’t. The Supreme Court agreed last month to hear the state’s appeal, but it has yet to schedule arguments in the case. Meanwhile, Democrats stand ready to challenge the disqualification of wrong-precinct votes if that’s necessary to nudge up the numbers.

The presidential race may require legal decisions resolving such issues, as well as recounts and all the additional questions they implicate, to be decided in as many as half a dozen states. Manual recounts may be requested in several states, adding additional delays to the overall process. The Trump campaign has already filed lawsuits challenging various aspects of ballot handling and counting in Michigan and Georgia; suits in Nevada and Arizona may follow. Every case will have to be decided before Dec. 8, the federal statutory “safe harbor” deadline for states to appoint elector slates, or, at the absolute latest, by Dec. 14, when the Electoral College votes.

The media is already accusing the Trump campaign of attempting to litigate its way to victory, but practically every issue in play arises from the Democrats’ march through the courts in the run-up to Election Day. For all the cries of “disenfranchisement,” both sides agree that every lawful ballot should be counted. But after so many conflicting court decisions over the past year, what’s uncertain now is the law, and there’s no dishonor in asking the courts to say what it is.

Messrs. Rivkin and Grossman practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. Mr. Rivkin has served in the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/another-election-goes-to-court-11604618993?mod=e2two

War-room podcast, October 2020

“If Democrats win, if they take the White House and the Senate, they abolish the filibuster by a simple majority, and they extend the Supreme Court to any size they want. It is completely Constitutional. It is not unlawful. But it will be a horrible result for everybody. Court packing would dramatize and enshrine in all its ugliness for everybody the Democrats’ view of the Supreme Court, which is essentially a legislature whose job is to ensure policy outcomes… I have no doubt that if they were to win, they would do that.”

The Supreme Court and the Election Returns

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey

Oct. 11, 2020, in the Wall Street Journal

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide as early as Monday whether to grant a stay in Pennsylvania Democratic Party v. Boockvar, in which the Keystone State’s supreme court, despite state election law to the contrary, ordered officials to count mail-in ballots received up to three days after Election Day. The justices should do so. This may turn out to be a normal election, in which we know the result by Nov. 4 and the Electoral College meets Dec. 14 to make it official. But a lot could go wrong, and the complex legal issues can be resolved only by the high court. Consider these possible scenarios:

• The counting drags on. If the election is close—and even if it isn’t—the process of tallying the vote could end up making the 2000 election dispute look simple. This year’s election procedures are being revised by courts in multiple states. This raises such questions as whether widespread mail-in voting and “ballot harvesting” are permissible and whether ballots received after Election Day can be counted, along with the overarching question of whether state or federal courts can create new election rules to address the Covid-19 pandemic.

In Bush v. Gore, the justices were forced to act by an impending deadline. Based on a specific constitutional grant of authority, Congress established the date on which the Electoral College must vote—a hard deadline (this year Dec. 14). In addition, Congress created a “safe harbor,” Dec. 8 this year, by which the state’s electoral slate is presumed to be valid. The court in 2000 acted to stop the recounts to meet the latter deadline.

Regardless of the statutory safe harbor, Article II of the Constitution requires each state to appoint electors “in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct” in time for the Electoral College vote. Because this is a specific constitutional duty conferred on state legislatures, they are exercising federal authority. Therefore neither state nor federal courts may rewrite election laws applicable to the selection of presidential electors. Justice Brett Kavanaugh emphasized that point concurring in Andino v. Middleton, an Oct. 5 order in which the justices stayed an injunction by the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that would have prevented South Carolina from enforcing its witness requirement for absentee ballots.

The Constitution similarly authorizes Congress to establish a single day—this year Nov. 3—on which presidential electors (and members of Congress) must be chosen. The election must be conducted on that day. This was the Supreme Court’s conclusion in Foster v. Love (1997), which involved congressional elections. The justices ruled that “the combined actions of voters and officials meant to make a final selection of an officeholder” must take place on Election Day, even if some aspects of voting may take place earlier. Thus although ballots can be completed beforehand and returned through the mail, they must be received by Nov. 3.

The justices have discretion over which petitions to hear and when. In cases involving a pending election, they should err on the side of speed and decisiveness. The sooner and more clearly these disputes are adjudicated, the likelier the election will go smoothly—and the less likely the need for an 11th-hour judicial intervention à la Bush v. Gore.

If counting isn’t complete by the time the Electoral College votes on Dec. 14, it’s possible one or more states will fail to appoint electors, violating its constitutional duty and leaving it disfranchised.

In that case, another question may arise: If states are absent from the Electoral College, does a candidate need a majority of the 538 available electoral votes (270) to be elected president or vice president, or is a majority of the votes cast sufficient? The 12th Amendment calls for “a majority of the whole number of electors appointed,” but the Supreme Court has never addressed this issue because it has never arisen. In only three elections—1789, 1864 and 1868—have any states’ electors gone unappointed, and in all three cases the winner had a majority either way.

• State authorities certify competing slates of electors. That’s what happened in the election of 1876 between Republican Rutherford Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden. Competing officials claimed their party had won 21 electoral votes from Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina, plus a single vote from Oregon—together enough to be decisive. Congress enacted legislation establishing a 15-member bipartisan “electoral commission” to resolve the dispute. The result, just in time for Inauguration Day on March 4, 1877, was a political deal that recognized Hayes as president and ended Reconstruction throughout the South.

The law creating the commission rested on no obvious congressional authority and thus was surely unconstitutional. But in an era when the federal judiciary’s role was far more circumscribed than today, the issue didn’t come before the Supreme Court. That would be different today—and rightly so. A dispute over the certification of electors is a legal question, not a political one. It would have to be resolved in the courts, and, given the stakes, ultimately by the Supreme Court.

• Congress attempts a power grab. In the years after the 1876 dispute, lawmakers enacted statutes to address the presidential election process, including barely intelligible language that purports to establish rules for determining which electoral votes Congress will count and authorizing members to lodge disputes. This too is constitutionally dubious although like the 1876 solution, it has never been litigated.

The 12th Amendment provides that once the electoral votes have been cast, the vice president receives and opens the votes before a joint session of Congress. (Under current statutory law, this takes place Jan. 6, after the new Congress has taken office.) But this is a purely ministerial function. If no candidate has an Electoral College majority, the House and Senate, respectively, choose the president and vice president. That is Congress’s only legitimate role in deciding the election.

This is for good reason. The Framers considered having Congress choose the president but concluded it would give too much power to the legislative branch and violate the separation of powers. Their solution was the Electoral College, an ephemeral body with no institutional interests of its own. Judges don’t decide election outcomes either, but the Supreme Court has recognized since Marbury v. Madison (1803) that it is their duty to “say what the law is.”

However disputed the election results may be, there is no basis for Congress to override the Electoral College or refuse to count the votes. The House recognized this in its 1932 report proposing the 20th Amendment, which noted that it was using “the term ‘President elect’ in its generally accepted sense, as meaning the person who has received the majority of the electoral votes, or the person who has been chosen by the House of Representatives in the event that the election is thrown into the House. It is immaterial whether or not the votes have been counted [in Congress], for the person becomes President elect as soon as the votes are cast.”

Whichever candidates receive the majority of electoral votes on Dec. 14 immediately become president and vice president elect, and they will take office on Jan. 20, 2021—even if it takes a Supreme Court ruling to make it so.

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-supreme-court-and-the-election-returns-11602435660

There was nothing unlawful or improper about Trump’s acceptance speech

By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Lee A. Casey

30 August 2020 in The Hill

The talking heads and pundits attacking President Trump for giving his Republican National Convention acceptance speech from the White House lawn need to actually read the law. The Hatch Act is a precisely written statute — as is appropriate for a law that limits the indisputable First Amendment rights of federal workers — and it supports the president.

First and foremost, the Hatch Act explicitly exempts the president and vice president from its strictures. It defines “employee,” to which the Hatch Act’s restrictions apply, as someone “other than the President or Vice President.” This is constitutionally required because the president is a co-equal branch of the federal government and Congress can no more limit or restrain his political activities than he could limit theirs.

As a result, President Trump was entirely within his legal rights to give his acceptance speech from the South Lawn of the White House. And any members of the White House staff who may have assisted and supported the president on Thursday night also were in compliance with the Hatch Act.

Although the Hatch Act prohibits a wide swath of federal workers — including many of the individuals who work in the White House — from engaging in political activities while on duty or “in any room or building occupied,” the White House lawn is not such a room or building.  Had Congress intended to extend Hatch Act restrictions to entire government installations or compounds, it could and would have said so.

In addition, there is a further exemption from the relevant Hatch Act restrictions for White House staff members whose work and responsibilities continue beyond normal working hours and while on travel — which includes many if not most of them. These individuals are permitted to engage in political activities while on duty and in a federal room or building, as long as “the costs associated with that political activity are not paid for by money derived from the Treasury of the United States.” The president has stated that the Republican National Committee would be picking up the tab for his White House event (and the fireworks afterwards).

Similarly, the attacks on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for delivering a convention speech from Jerusalem, endorsing President Trump’s reelection, are similarly misplaced based on these same provisions.  In addition to exempting senior White House staff from Hatch Act restrictions on political activities while on duty or in a federal building, Section 7324(b) of the Hatch Act also exempts federal officials who are confirmed by the Senate and who “determine[] policies to be pursued by the United States in relations with foreign powers or in the nationwide administration of Federal laws.” This language includes, at a minimum, the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and other members of the president’s cabinet.  

Such officials cannot, of course, use their “official authority or influence” to affect an election’s result, but the State Department has made clear that Secretary Pompeo spoke in his private capacity from Israel, not as secretary. Consequently, his speech was entirely consistent with his legal and ethical responsibilities.

Indeed, to the extent that Secretary Pompeo’s critics claim that he has somehow acted unethically or improperly, even if not illegally, it is significant that Congress itself made clear, in the Hatch Act’s first section, that federal employees — which includes cabinet members — “should be encouraged to exercise fully, freely, and without fear of penalty or reprisal, and to the extent not expressly prohibited by law, their right to participate or to refrain from participating in the political processes of the Nation.” The Hatch Act is a technical law to be applied as far as it goes and no further.

Finally, using the White House as a campaigning site is far from unprecedented. Jimmy Carter is said to have coined the phrase “Rose Garden Campaign,” complaining in 1976 that President Ford was taking advantage of the White House as a backdrop for his campaign. Then, in 1980 — facing economic disaster, the Iran hostage crisis and candidate Ronald Reagan, President Carter fell into the same strategy. Of course, it is only fair to note that the Rose Garden strategy did not turn out well for either sitting president in 1976 or 1980. 

But, there was nothing unlawful or improper about Presidents Ford and Carter using the White House grounds to help their campaigns then, and there is nothing improper about President Trump using it now.  

David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Source: https://thehill.com/opinion/judiciary/514192-there-was-nothing-unlawful-or-improper-about-trumps-acceptance-speech