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Democratic National Committee; New Jersey Democratic State Committee v. Republican National Committee; New Jersey Republican State Committee

March 8, 2012


APPEAL FROM THE JUDGMENT OF THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY (D.C. Civ. Action No. 2-81-cv-03876) District Judge: Honorable Dickinson R. Debevoise

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Greenaway, Jr., Circuit Judge.


Argued on December 13, 2010

Before: SLOVITER, GREENAWAY, JR., and STAPLETON, Circuit Judges.


In 1982, the Republican National Committee ("RNC") and the Democratic National Committee ("DNC") entered into a consent decree (the "Decree" or "Consent Decree"), which is national in scope, limiting the RNC's ability to engage or assist in voter fraud prevention unless the RNC obtains the court's approval in advance. The RNC appeals from a judgment of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey denying, in part, the RNC's Motion to Vacate or Modify the Consent Decree.*fn1 Although the District Court declined to vacate the Decree, it did make modifications to the Decree. The RNC argues that the District Court abused its discretion by modifying the Decree as it did and by declining to vacate the Decree. For the following reasons, we will affirm the District Court's judgment.


A. 1981 Lawsuit and Consent Decree

During the 1981 New Jersey gubernatorial election, the DNC, the New Jersey Democratic State Committee ("DSC"), Virginia L. Peggins, and Lynette Monroe brought an action against the RNC, the New Jersey Republican State Committee ("RSC"), John A. Kelly, Ronald Kaufman, and Alex Hurtado, alleging that the RNC and RSC targeted minority voters in an effort to intimidate them in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ("VRA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1971, 1973, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States. The RNC allegedly created a voter challenge list by mailing sample ballots to individuals in precincts with a high percentage of racial or ethnic minority registered voters and, then, including individuals whose postcards were returned as undeliverable on a list of voters to challenge at the polls. The RNC also allegedly enlisted the help of off-duty sheriffs and police officers to intimidate voters by standing at polling places in minority precincts during voting with "National Ballot Security Task Force" armbands. Some of the officers allegedly wore firearms in a visible manner.

To settle the lawsuit, the RNC and RSC entered into the Consent Decree at issue here. The RNC and RSC agreed that they would:

[I]n the future, in all states and territories of the United States:

(a) comply with all applicable state and federal laws protecting the rights of duly qualified citizens to vote for the candidate(s) of their choice;

(b) in the event that they produce or place any signs which are part of ballot security activities, cause said signs to disclose that they are authorized or sponsored by the party committees and any other committees participating with the party committees;

(c) refrain from giving any directions to or permitting their agents or employees to remove or deface any lawfully printed and placed campaign materials or signs;

(d) refrain from giving any directions to or permitting their employees to campaign within restricted polling areas or to interrogate prospective voters as to their qualifications to vote prior to their entry to a polling place;

(e) refrain from undertaking any ballot security activities in polling places or election districts where the racial or ethnic composition of such districts is a factor in the decision to conduct, or the actual conduct of, such activities there and where a purpose or significant effect of such activities is to deter qualified voters from voting; and the conduct of such activities disproportionately in or directed toward districts that have a substantial proportion of racial or ethnic populations shall be considered relevant evidence of the existence of such a factor and purpose;

(f) refrain from having private personnel deputized as law enforcement personnel in connection with ballot security activities.

(App. at 401--02.)*fn2 The RNC also agreed to, "as a first resort, use established statutory procedures for challenging unqualified voters." (Id.)

B. 1987 Enforcement Action and Consent Decree Modifications

In Louisiana during the 1986 Congressional elections, the RNC allegedly created a voter challenge list by mailing letters to African-American voters and, then, including individuals whose letters were returned as undeliverable on a list of voters to challenge. A number of voters on the challenge list brought a suit against the RNC in Louisiana state court. In response to a discovery request made in that suit, the RNC produced a memorandum in which its Midwest Political Director stated to its Southern Political Director that "this program will eliminate at least 60,000--80,000 folks from the rolls . . . If it's a close race . . . which I'm assuming it is, this could keep the black vote down considerably." Democratic Nat'l Comm. v. Republican Nat'l Comm., 671 F. Supp. 2d 575, 580 (D.N.J. 2009) (citing Thomas Edsall, Ballot Security Effects Calculated: GOP Aide Said Louisiana Effort "Could Keep the Black Vote Down," WASH. POST, OCT. 24, 1986 at A1. Although the DNC was not a party to the action in Louisiana state court, it brought an action against the RNC for alleged violations of the Consent Decree after this memorandum was produced.

The RNC and the DNC settled the lawsuit, this time by modifying the Consent Decree, which remained "in full force and effect." (App. at 404.) In the 1982 Decree, the RNC had agreed to specific restrictions regarding its ability to engage in "ballot security activities," but that Decree did not define the term "ballot security activities." (App. at 401.) As modified in 1987, the Decree defined "ballot security activities" to mean "ballot integrity, ballot security or other efforts to prevent or remedy vote fraud." Democratic Nat'l Comm., 671 F. Supp. 2d at 581. The modifications clarified that the RNC "may deploy persons on election day to perform normal poll watch[ing] functions so long as such persons do not use or implement the results of any other ballot security effort, unless the other ballot security effort complies with the provisions of the Consent Order and applicable law and has been so determined by this Court." (App. at 405.) The modifications also added a preclearance provision that prohibits the RNC from assisting or engaging in ballot security activities unless the RNC submits the program to the Court and to the DNC with 20 days' notice and the Court determines that the program complies with the Consent Decree and applicable law.*fn3

C. 1990 Enforcement Action

In 1990, the DNC brought a lawsuit alleging that the RNC violated the Consent Decree by participating in a North Carolina Republican Party ("NCRP") program. The DNC alleged that the RNC had violated the Decree in North Carolina by engaging in a program of the North Carolina Republican Party ("NCRP") in which 150,000 postcards were sent to residents of predominantly African-American precincts. This program allegedly attempted to intimidate voters by warning that it is a "federal crime . . . to knowingly give false information about your name, residence or period of residence to an election official." Democratic Nat'l Comm., 671 F. Supp. 2d at 581. The postcards falsely stated that there was a 30-day minimum residency requirement prior to the election during which voters must have lived in the precinct in which they cast their ballot.

The District Court found that the DNC failed to establish that the RNC conducted, participated in, or assisted in the postcard program. However, the Court also found that the RNC violated the Consent Decree by failing to give the state parties guidance on unlawful practices under the Consent Decree or copies of the Decree when the RNC gave them ballot security instructional and informational materials. The Court held that the RNC must provide a copy of the Consent Decree, or information regarding unlawful practices under the Consent Decree, along with any such instructional or informational materials that the RNC distributes in the future to any state party.

D. 2004 Enforcement Action (the "Malone enforcement action")

In 2004, the week before the general election for President, Ebony Malone ("Malone"), an African-American resident of Ohio, brought an enforcement action against the RNC, alleging that the RNC had violated the Consent Decree by participating in the compilation of a predominantly-minority voter challenge list of 35,000 individuals from Ohio. Malone's name was on the list. To compile the list, the RNC had sent a letter to registered voters in high minority concentration areas of Cleveland and the Ohio Republican Party sent a second mailing approximately a month later. Registered voters whose letters were returned as undeliverable were added to the challenge list.

Seeking solace pursuant to the Decree, Malone sought before the District Court a preliminary injunction barring the RNC and any state organizations with which it was cooperating from using the list in ballot security efforts.

On November 1, 2004, the DNC appeared before the District Court at an evidentiary hearing in support of Malone. The RNC argued that Malone's suit was non-justiciable due to irregularities in her registration which would result in her being challenged by the Ohio Board of Election regardless of any separate challenge brought by the RNC. The RNC also claimed that it had complied with the Decree and that the potential challenge to Malone voting was a "normal poll watch function[]" allowed by the Decree. (App. at 405.) Finally, the RNC asserted that the Ohio Republican Party, which was not subject to the Decree, would carry out any challenge to Malone's eligibility to vote.

Following an evidentiary hearing, the District Court issued an Order barring the RNC from using the list to challenge voters and directing the RNC to instruct its agents in Ohio not to use the list for ballot security efforts. The District Court rejected the RNC's argument that Malone's claims were non-justiciable because she would suffer irreparable harm if she had to endure multiple challenges to her eligibility to vote. The District Court found that the RNC had violated the procedural and substantive provisions of the Consent Decree by participating with the Ohio Republican Party in devising and implementing the ballot security program and failing to obtain preclearance for the program.

The RNC requested that our Court stay the Order. The panel denied the request for a stay and affirmed the District Court's Order, noting that emails between the RNC and the Ohio Republican Party showed collaboration between the two organizations sufficient to support the District Court's factual findings.

The RNC petitioned for rehearing en banc. We granted the petition for rehearing en banc the next day, Election Day, November 2, 2004. This Court vacated the panel's ruling and stayed the District Court's Order. Before the entire Court could hear the matter en banc, Malone cast her ballot without being challenged. After Malone voted without challenge, Justice Souter, in his capacity as Circuit Justice for the Third Circuit, denied Malone's application to the Supreme Court seeking reinstatement of the injunction. We dismissed the appeal as moot, without addressing the merits.

E. 2008 Enforcement Action

On November 3, 2008, the DNC alleged in a lawsuit that the RNC violated the Consent Decree by hiring private investigators to examine the backgrounds of some New Mexico voters in preparation for challenging those individuals' voting eligibility. The DNC requested a preliminary injunction to prevent the RNC from using the information gathered by private investigators in any ballot security efforts. The District Court denied the DNC's Motion for a Preliminary Injunction, concluding that the RNC did not direct or participate in any ballot security measures, and held that the RNC had not violated the Consent Decree.

F. Motion to Vacate or Modify the Consent Decree

On November 3, 2008, shortly after the District Court denied the DNC's Motion for a Preliminary Injunction, the RNC submitted the Motion to Vacate or Modify the Consent Decree that is currently at issue. The RNC submitted several arguments in support of its motion: (1) since the 1987 modification, the enactment of (a) the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (the "NVRA" or "Motor Voter Law"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1973gg et seq., (b) the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 ("BCRA"), 2 U.S.C. §§ 431 et seq., and (c) the Help America Vote Act of 2002 ("HAVA"),

42 U.S.C. §§ 15301 et seq. increased the risk of voter fraud and decreased the risk of voter intimidation; (2) the Consent Decree extends to types of conduct that were not included in the initial 1981 Complaint; (3) the Decree was interpreted too broadly and inconsistently with the parties' expectations at the time they entered the 1982 and 1987 settlements; and (4) the Decree violates the First Amendment by restricting communications between the RNC and state parties.

The District Court held an evidentiary hearing on the motion during May 5 and 6, 2009 and also received post-hearing submissions from the parties. On December 1, 2009, the District Court issued an opinion, denying the motion to vacate the Decree. First, the District Court rejected the RNC's argument that the Consent Decree was void because it "'improperly extend[s] to ... private conduct' and grants prospective relief beyond what the DNC could have achieved if the original 1981 action had been litigated." Democratic Nat'l Comm,671 F. Supp 2d at 595. The Court, instead, held the Decree was not void because parties can settle lawsuits by agreeing to broader relief than a court could have awarded otherwise. Furthermore, the Court held that the RNC was barred from asserting this argument because the RNC willingly entered the Decree as a means of settling the initial 1981 lawsuit and the RNC again consented to the Decree, as modified, in 1987. The District Court also held that the Decree did not violate the First Amendment because, under the Decree, the RNC is free to communicate with state parties about subjects other than ballot security. Additionally, the Court noted that the First Amendment applies only to state actions and does not prevent private parties from agreeing to refrain from certain types of speech.

Next, the District Court considered the RNC's arguments that the Decree should be vacated or modified due to changes in law, changes in fact, and the public interest in the RNC combating voter fraud. The Court found that neither the purported changes nor the public interest justified vacating or modifying the Decree. While the Court found that the Decree was not sufficiently unworkable to warrant vacating the Decree, the Court did find that four workability considerations justified modifying the Decree. Those considerations are that: (1) the potential inequity of the RNC being subject to suits brought by entities who were not party to the Decree when, under the BCRA, the RNC has to defend lawsuits using "hard money,"*fn4 while the DNC would not have to spend any money on such suits because it would not be a party*fn5 ; (2) the twenty-day notice requirement for preclearance prevents the RNC from combating mail-in voter registration fraud in a number of states with later mail-in voter registration deadlines; (3) the Decree lacked a clear definition of normal poll watching activities and the parties have not provided a definition, which has led the RNC to refrain from normal poll watching activities that the Decree was never intended to prohibit; and (4) the Decree lacked a termination date.

Thus, although the District Court denied the request to vacate the Decree, the Court granted the motion to modify the Decree. The District Court's modifications can be summarized as follows:

1. Only parties to the Consent Decree, RNC and DNC, may bring an enforcement suit regarding a violation of the Decree.

2. The preclearance period is shortened from 20 days to 10 days.

3. "Ballot security" is defined to include "any program aimed at combating voter fraud by preventing potential voters from registering to vote or casting a ballot." Democratic Nat'l Comm., 671 F. Supp. 2d at 622. The modification also includes a non-exhaustive list of ballot security programs.

4. "Normal poll-watch function" is defined as "stationing individuals at polling stations to observe the voting process and report irregularities unrelated to voter fraud to duly-appointed state officials." Id. The modification includes a non-exhaustive list of activities that do and do not fit into the Decree definition of normal poll-watch function.

5. The Decree does not apply to any RNC program that does not have as at least one of its purposes the prevention of fraudulent voting or fraudulent voter registration.

6. The Consent Decree expires on December 1, 2017 (eight years after the date of the modification). If, before that date, the DNC proves by a preponderance of the evidence that the RNC violated the Decree, the Decree ...

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