State’s request for stay rebuffed in voter registration case

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An attempt by the state of Indiana to squash discovery into its practice of maintaining voter rolls has been stopped by the Southern Indiana District Court, which pointed out to both parties that it has “extremely broad discretion in controlling discovery.”

Judge Tanya Walton Pratt issued the order Friday in Common Cause Indiana v. Connie Lawson, et al., 1:17-cv-03936, denying the state’s request to stay proceedings and discovery while the case is on interlocutory appeal to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The dispute stems from Indiana’s use of the controversial Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program to determine the eligibility of voters. In separate lawsuits, Common Cause Indiana, the Indiana State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the League of Women Voters of Indiana argued the state statute allowing the use of Crosscheck violates the National Voter Registration Act.

Walton Pratt issued a preliminary injunction in June which prohibited the state from implementing the Crosscheck program, finding the public has an interest in ensuring eligible voters are not disenfranchised without notice.

The state then appealed to the 7th Circuit. Briefs are still being filed and no date for oral arguments has been scheduled.

In seeking a stay on discovery, the state argued, in part, that since it is not currently using the Crosscheck program, the plaintiff’s discovery effort would be “mining for stale, irrelevant information (that) would needlessly disrupt and burden the Election Division while the Division prepares for the midterm elections.” Common Cause, however, countered that stopping discovery would likely make it impossible to reach a final judgment on the merits of the case in time to ensure no one has been wrongly removed from the voter rolls before the 2020 presidential election.

In response, the state asserted the plaintiff has not provided an adequate reason why the 2020 election should guide these proceedings. The state described the plaintiff’s argument as the “invented and unexplained importance of 2020.”

Rejecting the state’s argument, the district court held Common Cause’s position was not unreasonable. The court took particular notice of the nonprofit’s assertion that making sure the voter rolls are properly maintained and comply with the NVRA is important for Hoosier voters.

“The concerns listed by Common Cause are not insubstantial concerns and they are more than sufficient to counter Defendants’ arguments about the hardship it would encounter if not allowed to continue litigating this action,” Walton Pratt wrote.

The court also noted that granting a stay will not likely simplify this case. The state is appealing a preliminary ruling, so even if the 7th Circuit overturns the preliminary injunction, that would not likely not change the scope of discovery required to resolve the case.

Although it did not grant the stay, the court did remind the parties it has jurisdiction over discovery. The judge told the parties to work together and to consult with the magistrate judge, if necessary, on the discovery process.

“District courts have ‘extremely broad discretion in controlling discovery,’” Walton Pratt wrote, citing caselaw and federal court rules. “…In addition, the court may, ‘for good cause,’ limit the scope of discovery to ‘protect a party from…undue burden or expense.’”

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