Jenner & Block

The Heart of the Matter Blog

April 9, 2020 Illinois Governor Grants Clemency Petition for Pro Bono Client Charles Harris, Commuting Life Sentence to Time Served

This week, Governor Pritzker granted the clemency petition of longtime firm pro bono client Charles Harris, commuting his lifesentence to time served and ordering his release from Pontiac Correctional Center.   Mr. Harris was sentenced to life in prison under the Illinois Habitual Criminal Act in 1988 for committing three armed robberies, even though two of the robberies occurred when Mr. Harris was a juvenile, no one was injured during any of the robberies, and a total of only $235 was taken during the course of all three robberies combined. 

The team was led by Partner Thomas P. Sullivan and included Associates John J. Frawley and Bethany H. Felder.  Together, the team drafted a Petition for Executive Clemency in which they argued that Mr. Harris’ life sentence constituted a gross miscarriage of justice given the nature of the crimes, the mitigating factors that led to those crimes, and the astounding personal reforms Mr. Harris made while incarcerated. Additionally, the team collaborated with Mr. Harris’ family and friends to obtain letters in support of the petition.  The team also coached Mr. Harris for his interview with the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.

Mr. Harris’ release will end a total of 40 years spent in prison.   Mr. Harris had previously submitted three petitions for executive clemency, all of which were denied.  Mr. Harris looks forward to reuniting with his family upon release and spending time in his community educating young people about the criminal justice system.

CATEGORIES: clemency

PEOPLE: Thomas P. Sullivan, Bethany H. Felder, John J. Frawley

March 23, 2020 First Circuit Revives Suit that Challenges the EPA’s Plan to Limit Academic Scientists on Advisory Boards

Jenner & Block won a significant First Circuit appeal on behalf of pro bono clients, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and Dr. Elizabeth Anne Sheppard, a public health professor.  At issue is a directive from then-EPA Administrator E. Scott Pruitt dating to October 2017.  In that directive, Mr. Pruitt planned to exclude anyone who had received EPA grants to fund their research from serving on any of the 23 EPA scientific advisory boards.  Filed in January 2018, the lawsuit argues that “the effect of the ban, which has no precedent and no counterpart at any other federal agency or department, is to single out academic scientists and experts by excluding them from serving EPA in the public interest.”

On March 23, the First Circuit ruled that the lawsuit, Union of Concerned Scientists and Elizabeth Anne Sheppard v. US EPA et al., may proceed.  The court reversed the lower court’s judgment dismissing the case as unreviewable and sent the case back to the lower court for further consideration of the claims.  The unanimous three-judge panel said that the directive effectively "purged" 8,000 otherwise-qualified scientists from the rolls.

Partner Lindsay C. Harrison leads the team. The First Circuit appeal was argued by Partner Zachary C. Schauf, with assistance from Associates Samuel C. Birnbaum and Julian Ginos and Paralegal Cheryl Olson. “This case is an important victory for scientific integrity,” Ms. Harrison said in a statement.

PEOPLE: Lindsay C. Harrison, Zachary C. Schauf, Samuel C. Birnbaum, Julian J. Ginos

March 17, 2020 Jenner & Block Associates Secure Release of Client Detained by ICE at Privately Run Prison

A team of Los Angeles Jenner & Block associates secured the release of a pro bono client who had been detained by ICE at a privately run, for-profit detention facility.   

The client is a Cameroonian national who was repeatedly tortured by his government for his involvement with a peaceful political organization.  In 2019, fearing further torture and possible execution by the Cameroonian government, the client fled to the United States to seek asylum and/or protection under the U.N. Convention Against Torture.  Upon entry into the United States, the client declared himself to immigration authorities and was sent to a remote desert detention facility, where he had not received a hearing in over six months. 

Working in conjunction with the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, Associates Wesley M. Griffith, Sati Harutyunyan and Kristen Green secured the client’s release from detention pending a final ruling on his asylum and Convention Against Torture claims.  They were supervised and supported by Partner Todd C. Toral.  The team also included legal assistants Christal Oropeza and Elizabeth Visick.

Pro bono service is a core value of Jenner & Block.  Jenner & Block lawyers provided over 85,000 hours of pro bono services in 2019.

CATEGORIES: Asylum

PEOPLE: Wesley M. Griffith, Sati Harutyunyan, Todd C. Toral, Kristen Green

March 6, 2020 Washington Post Article Highlights Firm’s Pro Bono Representation of Birmingham’s “Fifth Girl”

Titled “Birmingham’s ‘Fifth Girl’,” the article chronicles the life of Sarah Collins Rudolph, whose sister and three other young black girls were killed on September 15, 1963, when a bomb ripped through the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.  Twelve years old at the time, Ms. Rudolph became known as the “Fifth Girl,” a hate crime survivor who lived for decades in anonymity before sharing her story publicly at age 49.  Former partner Tom Bolling became involved after hearing her speak.  Now, a team led by Partner Ishan K. Bhabha is championing efforts that could include an apology and restitution without a lawsuit.  “It’s hard to think of a more compelling story,” Mr. Bhabha told The Post.  Other team members include Partner Alison I. Stein and Associate Caroline C. Cease.

CATEGORIES: Sarah Collins Rudolph

PEOPLE: Alison I. Stein, Ishan K. Bhabha, Caroline C. Cease

February 27, 2020 Patrick Pursley, Wrongly Accused and Convicted, Reflects on His Acquittal after Spending 25 Years in Prison

On January 16, 2019, an Illinois judge acquitted pro bono client Patrick Pursley of first-degree murder.

In this video, Mr. Pursley and his Jenner & Block lawyers reflect on the decades-long fight to prove his innocence.

Read more about the case in The Heart of the Matter .

CATEGORIES: criminal defense, Litigation, Pro Bono

PEOPLE: Andrew W. Vail, Robert R. Stauffer, Kevin J. Murphy, Monika N. Kothari

February 13, 2020 Firm Publishes The Heart of the Matter Pro Bono Report

A wrongfully accused man is acquitted.  An imprisoned terminally ill man receives an $11 million jury verdict.  From veterans to human trafficking victims, from the Modern Classroom Project to the YWCA, Jenner & Block is pleased to tell these stories and more in our annual report on pro bono and community service.  The Heart of the Matter, published in time for Valentine’s Day, is a multi-media website that demonstrates how we have changed the lives of the clients and organizations we are privileged to represent.  For more information about the firm's pro bono program, please also visit The Heart of the Matter blog.

CATEGORIES: Litigation, Pro Bono, Transactional

February 6, 2020 Representing Big Shoulders Fund in Landmark Agreement with the Archdiocese of Chicago

The firm represented long-time pro bono client Big Shoulders Fund in the negotiation of a historic agreement with the Archdiocese of Chicago to support Catholic schools in the neediest areas of Chicago.

Completed in December 2019 and announced in early 2020, the agreement provides for tens of millions of dollars to be invested in Catholic schools in Chicago’s lower-income communities over the next decade.  An article in The Chicago Tribune described the effort as “a massive investment that comes amid widespread challenges to keeping schools open.”  The agreement was also announced in Crain’s Chicago Business.

Under the agreement, the Archdiocese and Big Shoulders together will provide more than $90 million in 30 Catholic schools located predominantly on the city’s South and West sides, with Big Shoulders donating $47.5 million to schools from Auburn Gresham to the Austin neighborhood over the next 10 years, and the Archdiocese providing nearly $45 million, to keep the schools open and improve their scholastic performance.

The Jenner & Block team, led by Partner Vincent E. Lazarand Big Shoulders Fund board member Daniel R. Murray, along with former associate David D. Heckman, worked with the client for more than a year to fashion this groundbreaking agreement.

CATEGORIES: Transactional

PEOPLE: Daniel R. Murray, Vincent E. Lazar

February 5, 2020 Firm Wins Illinois Appellate Victory for Pro Bono Client in Car Insurance Dispute

A team represented Robert Nixon, a 72-year-old veteran.  At issue in the long-running case was Mr. Nixon’s auto insurance policy, which the insurance company refused to honor after he was involved in an accident.

In 2014, Mr. Nixon purchased a used car and acquired an auto insurance policy from Direct Auto Insurance Company.   When Mr. Nixon was in an accident a few months later, Direct Auto refused to cover him and rescinded his policy, claiming that Mr. Nixon had lied on his insurance application because he had not listed his cousins as members of his “household.”   Because Direct Auto refused to defend Mr. Nixon’s insurance claim, a lawsuit by the other driver in the accident resulted in a default judgment against Mr. Nixon, as well as suspension of his driver’s license for driving without insurance.

Direct Auto sued Mr. Nixon in the Circuit Court of Cook County, seeking a declaratory judgment that it was not obligated to indemnify him in light of its rescission.   Mr. Nixon retained the pro bono assistance of another law firm, who took to the case to trial in the Circuit Court of Cook County.   After a bench trial, the Circuit Court ruled for Mr. Nixon, holding that Direct Auto was obligated to indemnify him for the accident.   The circuit court also held that Mr. Nixon had not lied on his application and that Direct Auto had deliberately made its application confusing and misleading. The circuit court held that Direct Auto’s rescission of the policy was “vexatious and unreasonable” and imposed the maximum allowable sanction under the Illinois Insurance Code, awarding an additional $60,000 to Mr. Nixon. 

Direct Auto appealed, and the firm stepped in to represent Mr. Nixon.  On September 30, 2019,  the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the judgment for Mr. Nixon.  The appellate court agreed with the firm that even if Mr. Nixon’s cousins were members of his household (which they were not), that purported misrepresentation would have been immaterial and would not have justified rescission of the policy.  The time for Direct Auto to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court elapsed on January 8, 2020.

Associate Leigh J. Jahnig drafted the response brief, with assistance from Associate Nathaniel K.S. Wackman.   Partners John Mathias, Jr., and David M. Kroeger supervised the drafting.  Paralegal Mary Patston provided invaluable assistance.

CATEGORIES: Appellate, Litigation

PEOPLE: David M. Kroeger, John H. Mathias, Jr., Leigh J. Jahnig

January 9, 2020 Firm Secures Below-Guidelines Sentence for Client

Through the firm’s work serving on the Criminal Justice Act panel in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, a team of associates secured a favorable and unexpected outcome in a pro bono matter. 

The case involved a 23-year-old client who had a significant prior criminal record and who was subsequently charged with selling relatively large quantities of drugs on 12 occasions to an undercover officer. 

Associate Tali Leinwand led the case, with assistance from Associate Logan J. Gowdey and supervision from Partners Anthony S. Barkow and Katya Jestin

The team negotiated a plea agreement with the government shortly after the client's arrest that reduced the mandatory minimum sentence from 120 months to 60 months.  Despite the government's recommendation for an incarceration term of at least 100 months, and a Sentencing Guidelines range of up to 150 months' incarceration, the client was ultimately sentenced to a below-Guidelines term of 72 months in prison. 

During the sentencing proceeding in December 2019, Chief Judge Colleen McMahon praised Ms. Leinwand's "very eloquent" oral argument and her and Mr. Gowdey's "excellent brief," telling the client how fortunate he was to have received such "excellent lawyering" and specifically citing favorable policy arguments that were set forth in the brief.  The client was very appreciative as well. 

Over the course of the representation, the team was also assisted by Associate Matt Phillips, summer associate Idun Klakegg, and paralegals Ricia Augusty and Charlotte Stretch.
 

CATEGORIES: criminal defense, Litigation

PEOPLE: Katya Jestin, Anthony S. Barkow, Matthew J. Phillips, Tali R. Leinwand, Logan J. Gowdey

December 19, 2019 Fourth Circuit Revives Maryland-Based Census Suit

The firm secured a pro bono victory on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Prince George’s County, Maryland, and other plaintiffs that are challenging the federal government’s plans for the 2020 Census.  Co-counsel with the Rule of Law Clinic at Yale Law School, the firm argues that the Bureau’s deficient plans will lead to an undercount of communities of color, leading to inequities in political representation and federal funding.

Originally filed in 2018, NAACP et al. v. Bureau of the Census was dismissed in 2019 at the district court level.  On December 19, 2019, the Fourth Circuit reinstated the suit, remanding it back to the district court to reconsider the plaintiffs’ Enumeration Clause claims.  The unanimous three-judge panel concluded that the district court “erred in dismissing the plaintiffs’ Enumeration Clause claims as unripe, and in precluding the plaintiffs from filing an amended complaint regarding those claims after the defendants’ plans for the 2020 Census became final.”

Partner Jessica Ring Amunson argued the appeal with a student from the Yale Law Clinic.  The team also includes Partners Susan Kohlmann, Jeremy Creelan and Michael Ross; Special Counsel Seth Agata; Associates Jacob Alderdice, Amy Egerton-Wiley, Logan Gowdey, Alex Trepp, Matthew Phillips, Keturah James and David Clark; Law Clerk Andrew Whinery; and Paralegal Esmeralda Bako.

“This decision gets us closer to a more just 2020 Census and shines a light on the critical issues at stake in the decennial census,” Ms. Amunson said in a press release about the decision.

At the NAACP’s annual meeting in July 2019, the organization honored the team with its “Foot Soldier in the Sand Award” for its efforts in the case.

The NAACP suit is the second suit the firm has filed, pro bono, seeking to ensure that the census adequately counts hard-to-count populations.  The firm also represents the Center for Popular Democracy Action and the city of Newburgh, New York, in a suit that seeks an injunction that would require the government to implement a plan to ensure that hard-to-count populations will be enumerated.  Filed in November 2019, Center for Popular Democracy Action and City of Newburgh v. Bureau of the Census is pending.

CATEGORIES: Appellate, Census, Litigation

PEOPLE: Jessica Ring Amunson, Susan J. Kohlmann, Michael W. Ross, Jeremy M. Creelan, Alex S. Trepp, Matthew J. Phillips, Jacob D. Alderdice, Amy Egerton-Wiley, Seth H. Agata, Logan J. Gowdey, David J. Clark

December 17, 2019 Firm Wins $11 Million Jury Verdict for Imprisoned Pro Bono Client after Failed Cancer Diagnosis

On December 17, a unanimous jury in Springfield, IL returned a more than $11 million verdict for incarcerated pro bono client William Kent Dean.  The jury found that Wexford Health Sources, Inc. and several of its employees violated Mr. Dean’s federal civil rights (8th Amendment, deliberate indifference) and committed both institutional negligence and medical malpractice under Illinois law.  The result concluded a seven-day trial before US District Judge Sue Myerscough in the Central District of Illinois.

Mr. Dean has stage-4 metastatic kidney cancer, which is terminal.  While imprisoned in the Taylorville Correctional Center in central Illinois, he began showing obvious signs of serious illness, including gross hematuria, or visible blood in his urine, in late 2015.   Despite his alarming symptoms, Mr. Dean did not receive proper diagnostic testing for four months and did not receive surgery for seven months.  Jenner & Block was appointed as his pro bono counsel in 2017.

“We are very pleased that the jury saw fit to compensate our client and his family for the tragic events surrounding his care.  The delays in providing that care essentially have become a death sentence for Mr. Dean,” said Partner Joel Pelz on behalf of the team.  “As his pro bono counsel, every member of our team has been privileged to tell his story, give a voice to his suffering and make the defendants accountable for this very serious error in care.”

At issue in the case was Wexford’s policy of “collegial review,” a process intended to address clinically appropriate and cost-conscious care that Wexford used instead to avoid paying for necessary care.  From December 2015 to July 2016, while Mr. Dean was held at Taylorville Correctional Center, the delays occasioned by collegial review allowed Mr. Dean’s cancer to grow and metastasize. In closing, the team asked the jury to consider not only the pain, suffering and mental anguish Mr. Dean had endured, but also the opportunity to send a message to Wexford that collegial review cannot be used to delay care.

The jury’s award included an assessment of $10 million in punitive damages against Wexford itself.

In addition to Mr. Pelz, Jenner & Block trial team members included Associates William M. Strom, Chloe Holt and Nathaniel K.S. Wackman.  The team was assisted by paralegals Dan Rooney, Kevin Garcia and Eric Herling.  In addition to their service, several trial members also provided their services pro bono, including trial director Dylan Green of Green Legal Technology and the trial graphics professionals, Kent and Val Bell of Discoll Bell LLC.

On January 28, 2020, Mr. Dean was released from Illinois Department of Corrections custody upon completing his prison sentence. He was picked up from Taylorville Correctional Center by his wife, Cynthia Dean, and called his lawyers at Jenner & Block during their drive home to La Salle County, Illinois. Mr. Dean had been in custody since 2010. He will now begin a three-year term of court supervision to complete his sentence.

In February 2020, the Chicago Lawyer magazine highlighted the case in a feature article.

The case name is Dean v. Wexford Health Sources, et al.


 

CATEGORIES: Litigation, Section 1983

PEOPLE: Joel T. Pelz, William M. Strom

November 20, 2019 Lawsuit Seeks to Ensure that 2020 Census Counts Hard-To-Count Populations

Jenner & Block has filed a lawsuit seeking to ensure that the US government alter its “deficient” plans for the 2020 census so that hard-to-count populations are counted. 

Co-counsel with the Rule of Law Clinic at Yale Law School, the firm represents the Center for Popular Democracy Action, a New York-based non-profit that works to “expand the voice and power of workers, communities of color and immigrants on issues of economic and racial justice,” and the city of Newburgh, located in the Southern District of New York.  Newburgh is home to large Hispanic American, African American and undocumented populations, making it a hard-to-count community for the 2020 Census.

The complaint describes the risk of a constitutionally and statutorily deficient census, which is used to allocate public funding, for seat apportionment in the US House of Representatives and to create state legislative districts.  Specifically, according to the complaint, the government’s Final Operational Plan “drastically and arbitrarily reduces the necessary resources for key activities,” the complaint reads.  It asks that the court hold unlawful five Census Bureau actions, including plans to hire an unreasonably small number of enumerators and a drastic reduction in the number of field offices.

“These decisions are not supported by reason.  They will inevitably cause a massive and differential undercount of communities of color,” the complaint reads.

Among other things, the lawsuit seeks an injunction that would require the government to implement a plan to ensure that hard-to-count populations will be enumerated in the census.

The team that filed the complaint included Partners Jeremy M. Creelan and Susan J. Kohlmann, Special Counsel Seth H. Agata , Associates Jacob D. Alderdice and David J. Clark and Law Clerk Keturah James.


 

CATEGORIES: Census, Litigation

PEOPLE: Susan J. Kohlmann, Jeremy M. Creelan, Jacob D. Alderdice, Seth H. Agata, David J. Clark

November 7, 2019 Seventh Circuit Affirms Ruling for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin in Access Restriction Dispute

A firm team representing Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin achieved an important victory in the Seventh Circuit when the court unanimously affirmed a district court ruling that declined to permit Wisconsin’s Legislature to intervene as a party in the firm’s ongoing challenge to certain abortion access restrictions in that state.

Wisconsin’s Attorney General Joshua Kaul, a Democrat, is defending the statutes and regulations and has denied that the statutes and regulation are unconstitutional.   However, during the December 2018 lame-duck session, the Wisconsin Legislature passed a statute purporting to give it the power to intervene in state and federal court in any lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a Wisconsin statute.   Arguing that Mr. Kaul was unlikely to defend the statutes as vigorously as he could, and arguing that the state statute gave it the right to intervene, the Legislature moved to intervene as a party under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 24 as of right or, alternatively, with the court’s permission.

The district court denied the Legislature’s request to intervene, holding that the Legislature had not shown that it had a unique interest in the lawsuit beyond its interest in defending the law, which was already being adequately protected by the attorney general’s defense of the statute.   The district court also held that permitting the Legislature to intervene as a duplicative party to also defend the law would complicate the litigation.   The court did invite the Legislature to participate as an amicus.

The Legislature took an interlocutory appeal of the district court’s ruling.   The team representing Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, pro bono, included Partners Alison I. Stein and Susan J. Kohlmann, with Associates Jessica Martinez, Danielle Muniz and Nicole Taykhman. 

The team drafted a compelling brief that dealt with complicated issues of first impression concerning the interplay of Wisconsin’s state statute, Rule 24, and the Seventh Circuit’s interpretation of that rule.   Associate Andrew C. Noll argued the appeal.   Paralegals Esmeralda Bako and Mary Patston provided invaluable assistance.

On November 7, 2019, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court in all respects, adopting the team’s arguments that the circuit’s existing precedent applied to the question of whether a second state entity could intervene in an ongoing lawsuit where the attorney general was already participating.  The circuit held that the Legislature had not shown it could intervene as of right or that the district court abused its discretion in denying intervention. 

The case, Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin v. Kaul, now returns to the district court, where litigation remains ongoing.


 

CATEGORIES: Planned Parenthood

PEOPLE: Susan J. Kohlmann, Alison I. Stein, Jessica A. Martinez, Danielle Muniz

November 7, 2019 Judge Rejects Motions to Dismiss, Orders Discovery in Class Action for Veterans with PTSD

On November 7, a Jenner & Block team secured a significant pro bono victory on behalf of thousands of Navy and Marine Corps veterans when a federal judge rejected the Secretary of the Navy’s request to dismiss a nationwide class action against the Navy Discharge Review Board (NDRB) and the US Department of Defense for issuing less-than-honorable discharges to veterans suffering from undiagnosed PTSD.  

In addition to denying the government’s motion, Senior Judge Charles S. Haight, Jr. of the District of Connecticut ordered the case to proceed discovery and directed the Navy to reconsider the requests to upgrade to Honorable the discharge characterizations of firm client Tyson Manker and of John Doe, a member of the organizational plaintiff National Veterans Council for Legal Redress (NVCLR).

“Today’s ruling, in time for Veterans Day, reaffirms the rule of law and brings us one step closer to getting justice for every veteran who was unfairly dismissed from the military with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and military sexual trauma, and denied their honorable discharge,” said Manker in a press release announcing the judge’s order to proceed.

In March 2018, Manker, a veteran of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and NVCLR filed a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of former Marines and sailors suffering from PTSD, who were unfairly dismissed from the military and denied their honorable discharge.  The lawsuit seeks to ensure the fair treatment of veterans who have or would be subjected to unfair procedures during the review process in front of the NDRB. 

On November 16, 2018, a judge certified the class action against the NDRB and US Department of Defense. The government went on to advance multiple arguments that, as the Court summarized, “seem to relate exclusively to the individual circumstances of Tyson Manker and John Doe.”  But Judge Haight rejected these contentions, emphasizing that in fact thousands of veterans would likely be affected by the litigation:  “Manker and Doe play important roles in this opera, but there are other soloists, a chorus, and a full orchestra—a fair analogy, given that the Court has certified a class of Navy and Marine Corps veterans…”

“As many as one-third of the more than two million men and women who have served since September 11, 2001, suffer from PTSD or other mental health conditions in relation to their service.  Many of these veterans obtain less-than-Honorable discharges, often for minor infractions related to their mental health,” said Garry Monk, executive director of NVCLR. “Veterans with ‘bad paper’ are often cut off from the very benefits that would allow them to successfully transition back to civilian life, and instead suffer a lifetime of stigma, barriers to employment, and ineligibility for crucial state and federal benefits.”

“When veterans seek to correct these unjust discharges, the Navy denies the vast majority of their applications, contrary to statute and to Department of Defense policies designed to provide relief to veterans with service-related PTSD and other conditions,” said Samantha Peltz, a law student intern in the Yale Veterans Legal Services Clinic.  “Despite its claims of improved compliance with Defense policies, over the past two years, the Navy has granted less than 20% of discharge upgrades for applicants with mental health claims.  The court’s decision today is another step towards justice for veterans who served their country and came home only to face daunting hurdles in seeking care for the wounds of war.”

Acting as co-counsel with Yale Law School’s Legal Services Organization Veterans Clinic, Jenner & Block represents veterans who say they were denied the Honorable upgrade because they had undiagnosed mental health issues, such as PTSD.  Associates Jessica A. Martinez and Jeremy H. Ershow have led the firm team since the complaint was filed in early 2018.  Associate Nicole Taykhman also made the oral argument in federal court on the motion. They are overseen by Partners Susan J. Kohlmann and Jeremy M. Creelan.

CATEGORIES: Litigation, veterans

PEOPLE: Susan J. Kohlmann, Jeremy M. Creelan, Jessica A. Martinez, Jeremy H. Ershow

August 26, 2019 Firm Team Achieves 11th Circuit Victory in Pro Bono Voting Rights Case

On August 22, a Jenner & Block team won a significant victory when the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed a lower court’s decision entering judgment against the American Civil Rights Union (ACRU), in its lawsuit against the Broward County Supervisor of Elections, Dr. Brenda Snipes.  The appellate court rejected ACRU’s arguments as contrary to the statutory text of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) and discerned “no clear error in the district court’s factual findings.”

In ACRU v. Snipes, ACRU alleged that Snipes failed to make reasonable efforts to conduct voter list maintenance programs, violating Section 8 of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) and the Help America Vote Act (HAVA).  The ACRU also claimed that Snipes failed to respond sufficiently to written requests for data regarding the offices implementation of programs and activities for ensuring the accuracy of official lists of eligible voters for Broward County, further violating Section 8 of NVRA.

After finding that the ACRU’s notice letter to Snipes was the only correspondence sent and did not disclose potential NVRA violation or probationary time to remedy it, the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida dismissed the allegation, sua sponte.

In July 2017, a five-day bench trial proceeded solely on the ACRU’s contention that Snipes failed to make “reasonable effort” to remove ineligible voters by reasons of death or change in address.  The court found every piece of evidence offered by ACRU unconvincing, concluding that the organization’s accusations were thoroughly unfounded and held that Broward County’s voter list maintenance program was fully compliant with federal law.

On March 30, 2018, Judge Beth Bloom ruled in favor of Dr. Snipes and SEIU.  In doing so, the judge wrote that Dr. Snipes “implemented a general program that makes a reasonable effort to remove the names of ineligible voters from the official lists of eligible voters by reason of death or change of address.”  The judge also held that the ACRU failed to prove a violation of Section 8 of the NVRA.  “The court recognizes that the NVRA has a nationwide application, and for that reason, it declines to apply a subjective approach that would vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction,” she wrote.  Partner Kali Bracey and Associate Tassity Johnson, joined by former partner Carrie Apfel and former associate Marina Jenkins successfully tried the case. 

In March 2019, Partner Jessica Ring Amunson argued the appeal in the 11th Circuit.  The appellate court affirmed the district court in full.  On appeal, the ACRU argued that the NVRA’s mandate to remove voters ineligible due to relocation or death extended to other categories of potential ineligibility, that the HAVA also broadened the NVRA’s list maintenance obligations, and that National Change of Address procedure outlined in the NVRA for removing relocated voters from the rolls did not create “safe harbor” of reasonable list maintenance.  The appellate court found that all three arguments were completely contrary to the language and purpose of the NVRA and HAVA.  Moreover, after “thorough review[ ]” of the record, the court “discern[ed] no clear error in the district court’s factual findings.” 

In addition to Ms. Amunson, the firm team on appeal included Partner Kali Bracey and Associates Tassity Johnson and Manuel C. Possolo.  Paralegal Cheryl Olson and Docketing Assistant Tyler Edwards also assisted at the trial and appellate levels.
 

CATEGORIES: Appellate Supreme Court, Litigation, Voting

PEOPLE: Jessica Ring Amunson, Manuel C . Possolo, Tassity Johnson, Kali Bracey

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