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Rhodes v. Snyder

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

March 28, 2018

DEBRA RHODES, et al., Plaintiffs,


          MARK A. GOLDSMITH United States District Judge.

         Plaintiffs ask that this Court order Defendant Governor Richard Snyder to hold the election to fill out the balance of Congressman John Conyers Jr.'s term on an earlier schedule than the one the Governor established. The United States Constitution requires a state's governor to call an election to fill vacancies in that state's representation in the United States House of Representatives, thereby ensuring that its “[m]embers [are] chosen . . . by the People of the several States.” U.S. Const. art. I, § 2, cl. 1. But the Constitution accords considerable deference to a governor in setting the election date. Having reviewed the extensive record presented, this Court finds no evidence supporting Plaintiffs' theory that Governor Snyder was racially motivated or otherwise violated equal protection guarantees when he established dates that coincide with the regularly scheduled election dates in August and November of this year.

         Therefore, those dates will remain in effect.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This matter is before the Court on a motion for preliminary injunction (Dkt. 8) brought by Plaintiffs Debra Rhodes, Gloria Mounger, Thomas Williams, Laura Dennis, and Vivian Wordlaw. Plaintiffs are registered voters in Michigan's thirteenth Congressional district, a district that has been without a representative in the U.S. House of Representatives since the resignation of Congressman Conyers on December 5, 2017. Plaintiffs allege that Governor Snyder's decision to delay a special election until November 6, 2018, violates their equal protection, due process, and voting rights under the Michigan and United States constitutions. They now seek an order directing Governor Snyder to conduct a special election “as soon as possible.” For the reasons stated below, the Court denies Plaintiffs' motion for preliminary injunction.

         On December 5, 2017, Congressman Conyers resigned as Representative of Michigan's thirteenth Congressional district. Am. Compl. ¶ 20 (Dkt. 10). Three days later, Governor Snyder called a special election to fill the vacant House seat. Id. ¶ 22. Governor Snyder stated that the primary election would be held on August 7, 2018, while the general election would be held on November 6, 2018; these dates correspond with the previously scheduled dates for the primary and general elections for the 2018 state-wide races and congressional seats. See Conyers Election Call, Ex. 4 to Def. Resp., at 1-2 (Dkt. 11-5). The winner of this special election will serve out the remainder of Congressman Conyers's term, a period running from November 7, 2018 until January 3, 2019.

         Plaintiffs allege that this eleven-month delay between Congressman Conyers's resignation and the special general election, in a majority-black district, violates the Fourteenth Amendment's due process and equal protection clauses, and the corresponding provisions of the Michigan Constitution. They also allege that this delay violates their right to vote under the Fifteenth Amendment. Plaintiffs contrast the eleven-month delay with the four-month delay that occurred when there was a vacancy in 2012 in Michigan's eleventh congressional district, a majority-white district. They argue that the loss of the constitutional right to vote tips the balance of harms in their favor; they also contend that a prompt special election is in the public interest.

         In response, Governor Snyder first argues that Plaintiffs' claims are barred by the equitable doctrine of laches, because Plaintiffs waited nearly two months after Congressman Conyers' resignation to file a motion for preliminary injunction. He also argues that Plaintiffs' claims fail on the merits, because other congressional districts have been treated in a similar manner when vacancies have arisen, and because the decision to fill the vacancy using the previously scheduled primary and general elections dates does not unconstitutionally burden their right to vote. With regard to the balance of harms, Governor Snyder argues that Plaintiffs do not have a right to continuous, uninterrupted representation, and that an order compelling an earlier election that does not coincide with other regularly scheduled elections would impose significant costs and burden government employees. Finally, Governor Snyder argues that the public interest does not weigh in favor of holding an earlier special election, asserting that as long as the state complies with the constitutional requirement that a special election be held, the public does not have any particular interest in when the election is held.

         The Court held a hearing on Plaintiffs' motion on March 15, 2018. It was at this hearing that Plaintiffs' counsel first specified the relief that Plaintiffs seek. While the motion merely states that Plaintiffs ask that the special election be held “as soon as possible, ” Plaintiffs' counsel stated at the hearing that Plaintiffs are seeking a special, standalone primary to be held within fifty days, with the special general election to be held at the same time as the regularly scheduled primaries on August 7, 2018.

         After hearing this proposal, the Court called Melissa Malerman, a senior election law specialist with Michigan's Secretary of State, to testify as to its feasibility. Malerman testified that the requested fifty-day deadline to hold a standalone special primary was not possible. In a subsequent declaration, Malerman states that, under Plaintiffs' proposal, it is not possible to meet the forty-five-day deadline for issuing ballots overseas voters, as required by the Uniformed and Overseas Civilian Absentee Voting Act (“UOCAVA”), 52 U.S.C. § 20301, et seq., without violating several state statutes. Malerman Aff. II, Ex. 1 to Supp. Br., ¶ 12 (Dkt. 18-2). These include allowing time for individuals to challenge nominating petitions and to file administrative appeals, Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.552(2), and allowing candidates two business days to review ballot proofs for completeness and accuracy, Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.565. Id.

         Malerman also addressed the possibility of holding a standalone primary in June, stating that compliance with certain statutory deadlines would be “extremely complicated and fraught with the potential for error, or impossible.” Malerman Aff. II ¶ 14. Scheduling a primary on June 5, 2018 would shorten the statutory deadline for candidates to file in order to ensure compliance with the UOCAVA. Id. Mandating a June 12, 2018 primary would eliminate the ability to file a challenge against the sufficiency of a candidate's nominating petition. Id. A June 19, 2018 primary would violate the statutory deadline to certify candidates to the August ballot. Id. Finally, holding a June 26, 2018 would force Michigan to violate the UOCAVA. Id.

         Malerman believes that, ideally, the state would need at least ninety days to comply with statutory requirements, including allowing candidates to collect signatures, allow individuals to challenge those signatures, and certifying and printing ballots. According to Malerman, even if the standalone primary was held ninety days from now, there would still be a possibility that certain statutory deadlines would be violated. However, she acknowledged that the state was able to schedule and conduct a standalone primary in September 2012, less than two months after a vacancy occurred in Michigan's eleventh congressional district.


         To determine whether to grant a preliminary injunction, a district court must consider: (i) the plaintiff's likelihood of success on the merits; (ii) whether the plaintiff may suffer irreparable harm absent the injunction; (iii) whether granting the injunction will cause substantial harm to others; and (iv) the impact of its decision on the public interest. Hamad v. Woodcrest Condo. Ass'n, 328 F.3d 224, 230 (6th Cir. 2003). These four factors “are factors to be balanced, not prerequisites that must be met.” Id.

         III. ANALYSIS

         In their amended complaint, Plaintiffs allege violations of their due process, equal protection, and voting rights. However, in their motion for preliminary injunction, Plaintiffs only address the merits of their equal protection claim. As a result, the Court will only consider whether the decision to delay the special election until November violates Plaintiffs' equal protection ...

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