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Stein v. Thomas

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

December 5, 2016

JILL STEIN, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
CHRISTOPHER M. THOMAS, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION & ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR TEMPORARY RESTRAINING ORDER (Dkt. 2)

          Mark A. Goldsmith United States District Judge

         Plaintiffs Dr. Jill Stein and Louis Novak were, respectively, a presidential candidate and a Michigan voter, in the presidential election held on November 8, 2016. Defendants are officials charged with administering the election in Michigan, which includes recounting the votes and certifying the results.

         On November 30, 2016, Stein filed a petition seeking a statewide recount of the election. Pl. Br. at 2 (Dkt. 2-1). The recount was set to begin on December 2, 2016, but the day before, President-elect Donald J. Trump filed objections to Stein's petition. Id. at 3. On December 2, 2016, the Michigan State Board of Canvassers deadlocked as to Mr. Trump's objections, resulting in an automatic rejection of Mr. Trump's objections. See Defs. Resp. at 3-4 & n.3 (citing Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.22d(2)) (Dkt. 6). The objections are currently the subject of litigation in the Michigan Court of Appeals, with an application for by-pass pending in the Michigan Supreme Court.

         Pursuant to Michigan law, the resolution of these objections prohibited Michigan officials from beginning the recount until two business days had passed. See Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.882(3) (providing in part that “[t]he board of state canvassers shall not begin a recount unless 2 or more business days have elapsed since the board ruled on the objections under this subsection, if applicable.”). Because this two-day period spanned a weekend, the delay would amount to 4 days total, with the recount tentatively scheduled to commence on either the evening of December 6 or the morning of December 7, 2016. See Brewer Decl. at 3 (Dkt. 3).

         This four-day delay made unavailable about one-third of the time allocated to complete the recount, on the assumption that the recount would have to be completed by December 13, 2016 - the so-called “safe harbor” date for the selection of presidential electors. See Pls. Br. at 4; Defs. Resp. at 13-14; 3 U.S.C. § 5. Without completion of the recount, any controversy regarding which candidate's electors had been elected in the November 8 election might ultimately be decided by Congress, rather than conclusively determined by Michigan. Plaintiffs allege that: (i) the recount is essential for a proper recording of voters' preferences, and (ii) if not completed by the “safe harbor date, ” voters will lose the right of having their actual selection of presidential electors tabulated free from possible contravention by Congress. Accordingly, Plaintiffs filed a complaint and this motion for a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction, asking this Court to enjoin Defendants from delaying the recount until December 7, 2016.

         DISCUSSION

         To determine whether to grant a preliminary injunction or temporary restraining order, a district court must consider: (i) whether the movant has a strong likelihood of success on the merits; (ii) whether the movant would suffer irreparable injury without the injunction; (iii) whether issuance of the injunction would cause substantial harm to others; and (iv) whether the public interest would be served by the issuance of the injunction. Baker v. Adams Cnty./Ohio Valley Sch. Bd., 310 F.3d 927, 928 (6th Cir. 2002). These four factors “are factors to be balanced, not prerequisites that must be met.” Hamad v. Woodcrest Condo. Ass'n, 328 F.3d 224, 230 (6th Cir. 2003).

         Plaintiffs have shown a likelihood of success on the merits of their claim that the two business day waiting period, as applied in this case, would likely violate their right to vote under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The Supreme Court has recognized that while the Constitution itself accords no right to vote for presidential electors, a state's decision to allow voters to make that decision creates a right to vote that is deemed “fundamental.” Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98, 104 (2000) (“When the state legislature vests the right to vote for President in its people, the right to vote as the legislature has prescribed is fundamental . . . .”); see also League of Women Voters of Ohio v. Brunner, 548 F.3d 463, 476 (6th Cir. 2008) (“The right to vote is a fundamental right, preservative of all rights.”). When that right is burdened, courts must engage in a careful analysis of the magnitude of the infringement and the countervailing interest of the state. As the court explained in Burdick v. Takushi, 504 U.S. 428 (1992):

A court considering a challenge to a state election law must weigh the character and magnitude of the asserted injury to the rights protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments that the plaintiff seeks to vindicate against “the precise interests put forward by the State as justifications for the burden imposed by its rule, taking into consideration the extent to which those interests make it necessary to burden the plaintiff's rights.
Under this standard, the rigorousness of our inquiry into the propriety of a state election law depends upon the extent to which a challenged regulation burdens First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Thus, as we have recognized when those rights are subjected to severe restrictions, the regulation must be narrowly drawn to advance a state interest of compelling importance. But when a state election law provision imposes only reasonable, nondiscriminatory restrictions upon the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of voters, the State's important regulatory interests are generally sufficient to justify the restrictions.

Id. at 434 (quoting Anderson v. Celebrezze, 460 U.S. 780, 788, 789 (1983)).

         Here, there is a right to a recount provided by state law, designed to ensure a fair and accurate election. Plaintiffs invoke that right, claiming that a delay in the recount will jeopardize it. Defendants do not dispute that the loss of a recount right would impair the right to vote. Rather, they claim that Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.882(3) is not unconstitutional because of the state's interest in avoiding the cost of starting a recount effort that may later be halted through judicial review of the Board of Canvassers' rejection of an objection to the recount. See Defs. Resp. at 12 (“A short waiting period helps guard against unnecessary expense should a Michigan state court determine that a recount should not go forward.”).

         However, with the perceived integrity of the presidential election as it was conducted in Michigan at stake, concerns with cost pale in comparison. Historically, courts have assigned diminished weight to a state's financial interest when constitutional rights are at stake. See, e.g., Shapiro v. Thompson, 394 U.S. 618, 633 (1969), overruled in part on other grounds by 394 U.S. 618, 634 (1969). Such concerns are further reduced when taking into account the fact that Plaintiffs have paid the fee required by law for the recount - $973, 250. See Brewer Decl. at 2. This fee undoubtedly covers the cost of starting the recount roughly a day or two before it would otherwise commence if the two-day rule were observed.

         Plaintiffs have also shown the likelihood of irreparable harm. Where a plaintiff's constitutional rights are at issue, the movant need only show that his rights are “threatened, ” from which showing “a finding of irreparable injury is mandated.” Am. Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky v. McCreary Cnty., Ky., 354 F.3d 438, 445 (6th Cir. 2003), aff'd sub nom. McCrearyCty., ...


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