The Importance of Diligence in Voting Rights Cases.

Voting rights cases are all the more important these days.  In Benisek et al v. Linda H. Lamone, Administrator, Maryland State Board of Elections et al, 585 U.S. ___ (June 18, 2018), the Supreme Court of the United States dealt with claims by a group of Republican voters in Maryland.   The GOP voters claimed that their Congressional District was "gerrymandered" in 2011.  This group sought a preliminary injunction six years later, alleging that injunctive relief was needed to stop elections from going forward under the redistricted plan from 2011.

The Benisek decision was published on the same day as Gill v. Whitford; a summary of Gill can be found in my footnote/blog posted on July 14, 2018 ("The Supreme Court Avoids Stepping on a Gerrymander or Two.").   The facts and procedure behind this Maryland case made it easy for the Supreme Court to avoid the substance of gerrymandering's effect on voters' rights.

In contrast to many opinions from the Supreme Court,  Benisek is a "per curiam" decision and also relatively short in length.   "Per curiam" is Latin legalese for an unanimous decision that comes down from the entire court.  As such, it does offer a very broad framework for potential future litigants seeking review of preliminary injunction decisions---in and out of the voting rights arena.

The Supreme Court recognized the disconnect between an action for injunctive relief brought in 2017 for a 2011 redistricting plan.  The very basis of seeking a preliminary injunction is to avoid the claimed "manifest and irreparable injury" that would result from some event or action taking place.  The fact that the appellants waited so long to bring their claims undermined the urgency of their request and the necessary showing of diligence.  Moreover, the specific relief sought by the appellants involved a very short turnaround time frame by the court. Another key element is whether the appellants established a likelihood of success on the merits of their underlying claim of wrongful gerrymandering.

Preliminary injunctions are not granted as a matter of course.   The trial court --- here, the United States District Court for the District of Maryland--- takes into account the specific factual and legal underpinnings of a controversy when deciding whether to "enjoin" the identified actions. Only where the District Court's decision is shown to be an abuse of discretion, will the Supreme Court overturn the lower court's ruling on a preliminary injunction.

The per curiam opinion of the Supreme Court held that the  group of Republican voters failed to meet the requisite legal showing to warrant a preliminary injunction. The District Court's decision was affirmed.

While not a lynch pin of Benisek, the Supreme Court opinion referenced "a due regard for the public interest in orderly elections supported by the District Court's discretionary decision  to deny a preliminary injunction and to stay the proceedings. " Benisek at p. 4, citing Purcell v. Gonzales, 549 U.S. 1, 4-5 (2006)(per curiam). As additional voting rights cases are before the Supreme Court--- or the lower courts, for that matter--- attention should be paid to how this "public interest in orderly elections" is further defined.


Mari Bush