Voting rights cases can take winding roads through the court system before they are resolved. The central objective behind any lawsuit is that the parties suing to protect voting rights — or defend voting rights from attack — want the largest number of eligible voters to be able to both cast a ballot and have their ballot be counted. Achieving this can require filing various motions to address the issues raised, appealing decisions that negatively impact voters or reaching an agreement with the other side over how to settle claims.
Below, we outline a step-by-step process that a typical voting rights lawsuit goes through. The steps we describe sometimes happen simultaneously or in rapid succession, all with the goal of ensuring that eligible voters can access the ballot box.
What’s the playing field for voting rights litigation?
Before we look at the average trajectory of a voting rights case, it’s important to remember that there are two types of courts in the United States — state courts and federal courts. You can think about them as parallel tracks that can both (rarely) end up in the U.S. Supreme Court. Within the two respective tracks, there are three main levels: trial courts, appellate courts and the highest court for that respective track. Whether a case is filed in state or federal court depends on whether there is a federal or state question at hand and which court has jurisdiction to oversee the lawsuit. For more detailed information on how the U.S. court system works, you can read “The U.S. Court System Explained.” For definitions of important legal terms that you’ll see throughout this piece, look over “Legal Jargon 101.”
The first step in any lawsuit is filing a complaint in court.
The filing of a complaint kicks off a lawsuit. Individuals or groups — the plaintiffs — file a complaint naming the parties involved and laying out the claim(s) against the defendants. The claims outline what injuries the plaintiffs are allegedly facing because of a certain law or practice and why that violates state or federal law. The complaint is filed at the lowest level: the U.S. district court for a federal lawsuit or a state trial court for a state lawsuit (throughout this piece, we’ll refer to courts in this first level as “trial courts”).
Next, the parties file motions before the case goes to trial.
Once a complaint is filed, the other side gets a chance to respond. The defendants can either file an answer addressing the claims, which moves the case forward, or file a motion to dismiss all or part of the complaint on the basis that there is a defect with it. If a motion to dismiss is filed, both sides get to file briefs explaining their stance. After the motion is fully briefed and a hearing is held (if deemed necessary by the court), the court decides if there are any fatal defects with the complaint and, if so, whether the defective claims must be thrown out. If a party disagrees with the court’s decision on the motion to dismiss, it can appeal this order to the next court level, thereby shifting the trajectory of the case.
Another motion you will often see at the beginning of a voting rights lawsuit is a motion for a preliminary injunction or temporary restraining order (when the court stops one or more defendants from taking a specific action). In voting rights lawsuits, the plaintiffs are usually seeking immediate relief — they need voters to be able to vote in the next election and need relief with adequate time to ensure that voters and election officials understand what processes are in place. A preliminary injunction is often sought so that harmful laws cannot be enforced while the case moves through the courts. This is crucial because, if a harmful law blocks a lawful voter from being able to cast a ballot, that injury cannot be undone. Thus, preliminary injunctions and temporary restraining orders are essential tools in preserving the right to vote while litigation proceeds. The court could grant or deny injunctive relief depending on the facts of the case, and the party that does not get what it wants could appeal this order.
Other motions that may pop up in the early stages of litigation include motions to intervene and motions for summary judgment. Decisions on these motions can also be appealed to the next-highest court and the case might move up and down the court levels. Finally, it’s important to remember that a settlement — when parties agree to end their case before conducting a trial by spelling out legal requirements of the parties going forward — can happen in this stage.
Then, the case will go to trial.
If the case survives motions to dismiss and/or motions for summary judgment (and none of those decisions are appealed), the next step is for the case to go to trial. At trial, each side presents experts, witnesses and evidence to support their argument. Normally, voting rights cases are heard by a judge in what’s known as a bench trial. After assessing all of the facts presented, the judge will determine if the allegations brought by the plaintiffs are true and, if so, what legal relief is warranted. This might mean that a voting law is upheld or blocked, determining which voting processes are in place for future elections and potentially which voters can access the ballot box.
Appellate courts are the first level of appeal.
If a party disagrees with the outcome at the trial level, they can appeal it to a higher appellate court. The party that filed the appeal will likely seek a stay pending appeal, which means they ask the higher court to halt the effect of a lower court’s ruling while the case is appealed. This is especially important in voting rights cases where the impact of an unfavorable order can be immediately felt if not stayed. The reverse can also happen where a voting rights victory is stayed pending appeal, leaving a harmful law or practice in place in the interim.
For federal cases, the appeal goes to a circuit court. There are 13 circuit courts: 12 are organized geographically and one is the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which hears specific national jurisdiction cases including patent lawsuits and appeals from the U.S. Court of International Trade. A three-judge panel reads the parties’ briefs on the issues and their respective positions, holds an oral argument where both sides present their arguments and either affirms (agrees with) or reverses (disagrees with) the trial court’s decision. If a party disagrees with the ruling of the three-judge panel, they can file a petition for rehearing en banc asking the entire slate of judges for the circuit court to rehear the case.
The state court system largely mirrors the structure of the federal court system in that it is generally composed of three main levels that a case moves through: trial courts, state appellate courts and a state Supreme Court.
The U.S. Supreme Court is the final possible level of appeal.
Parties who disagree with the decision made by a federal circuit court can petition the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case. Less frequently, parties can petition the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision made by a state Supreme Court if the case deals with a federal question.
Unlike intermediate appellate courts, the U.S. Supreme Court is not required to hear cases. Instead, parties ask the court to grant a writ of certiorari. The Supreme Court hears around 80 cases per year, selected from over 7,000 cases that it is asked to review. A majority of the justices can affirm or reverse the decision of the appellate court and remand (send it back) to the lower court if necessary. The Court also has the power to grant emergency relief in time-sensitive situations without granting the writ of certiorari and deciding the merits of the case.
What else can impact litigation?
When thinking about the trajectory of voting rights litigation, there are a few other key factors to keep in mind. Sometimes lawsuits can take years to resolve, while other times immediate relief is needed for an upcoming election. In the latter scenario, voting rights litigators have to seek relief while keeping state and federal laws and election timelines in mind. For example, the Purcell principle has recently played a large role in the outcome of voting rights litigation. This principle suggests that courts should not change voting or election rules close to an election in order to avoid confusion for voters and elections officials alike. Parties trying to block a lower court order that grants relief for voters may cite Purcell as a reason why the relief should be paused to go back to the status quo. In reality, Purcell creates an opportunity for restrictive voting measures or unfair maps to remain in place simply because an election is on the horizon.
Voting rights litigation is front and center on dockets across the country.
Each lawsuit defending the right to vote has its own trajectory based on the relief it is seeking, but now you know all of the basics. If you want to see a case that spanned years of litigation and went through all three levels of the federal court system, check out Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee. And keep an eye on our Cases page and our monthly litigation previews to see how current voting rights cases are moving through the courts.