What’s the Deal With Interventions?

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After the hotly contested Republican Senate primary in Pennsylvania in May, candidate David McCormick filed a lawsuit against the Pennsylvania secretary of state arguing that undated mail-in ballots should be counted. But his campaign and the secretary of state weren’t the only people involved. The day after the lawsuit was filed, his opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz, the Republican National Committee (RNC) and the Republican Party of Pennsylvania moved to intervene in the lawsuit and argued against counting undated mail-in ballots.

Why did these Republicans intervene in the case if they weren’t originally involved? And what is an intervention in the first place? Today, we’re breaking down what it means to intervene in a case and why groups may choose to do so.

What does it mean to intervene in a lawsuit?

An intervention happens when an outside group or individual asks to join an already existing lawsuit as either a plaintiff or defendant. Intervenors usually have a stake in the outcome of the case and want to help their side win. Once a group is allowed to intervene, they fully participate in the rest of the case — meaning they file briefs with the court, participate in trials or oral arguments and appeal decisions if desired.

Intervention doesn’t just happen automatically. If an individual or group decides they want to intervene in a case, they have to file a motion to intervene asking the court to let them in. These motions must present an argument as to why the individual or group should be allowed to intervene. In the RNC’s motion to intervene in the Pennsylvania case, the committee argued it should be allowed to intervene because it has an interest “in assuring that elections involving Republican candidates are conducted in accordance with the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.” Typically, the proposed intervenor will also have to explain why the existing parties in the lawsuit won’t be able to adequately protect their interests. The other parties in the case can argue for or against the motion to intervene. Once the court rules on a motion, that decision can be appealed to higher courts.

Who intervenes in voting rights cases?

A wide range of organizations and individuals commonly intervene in voting rights cases. While voting rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the League of Women Voters have a long history of intervention in lawsuits, it’s also become increasingly common for political organizations like the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), state-level parties and their Republican counterparts to intervene as well, like we saw the RNC and Pennsylvania Republican Party do in the undated mail-in ballot case. Nowadays, if one political party is involved in a lawsuit the other will likely intervene to get involved as well — Democrats don’t want a Republican lawsuit unfolding without their participation and vice versa.

In the latest round of redistricting and voting rights cases, we’ve also seen a number of intervenors that bill themselves as “nonpartisan” groups but are really just proxies for Republicans. Some of these groups, like Judicial Watch or the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF), have been around a while, but others like the Honest Elections Project have popped up in recent cases. While PILF originally focused on voter purges, it recently tried to intervene in ongoing litigation over redistricting in Texas (the court denied its motion). While presenting themselves as independent, all of these groups have ties to Republicans through their funding or personnel — Honest Elections Project, for instance, has extensive ties to Trump.

Why do parties choose to intervene?

There are a variety of reasons a group might intervene beyond just wanting to help its side win a case. Groups may want to have a seat at the table to shape policy outcomes, especially if the parties in the lawsuit decide to reach a settlement. These intervenors also often have particular expertise in the issue at hand or an important perspective that the lawsuit’s original plaintiffs or defendants may not have. For example, an official representing the state in a redistricting case may know little about the law around redistricting, knowledge an intervenor can provide instead. Intervenors can also ensure a case continues if the original plaintiffs or defendants decide not to appeal a ruling — in the Pennsylvania case over undated mail-in ballots, the Republican intervenors were the ones who initiated an appeal, not the secretary of state, the original defendant.

But there are some less legitimate reasons to intervene in a lawsuit as well. Intervenors can obstruct a case by overcomplicating proceedings, for example, by intervening and then refusing to participate in the discovery phase of litigation when the plaintiffs and defendants obtain evidence. This can create artificial delays in the judicial process. Apart from delaying resolution of a case, these sorts of shenanigans can also make pursuing litigation much more costly, requiring greater resources in both time and money from litigants. Making voting rights cases harder to pursue discourages plaintiffs from bringing lawsuits in the first place. So while intervention isn’t in and of itself a bad thing, it can certainly be used for nefarious ends.

Interventions are common in voting rights cases.

Interventions happen frequently in voting rights and redistricting cases. Democratic party organizations like the DNC and individual state parties intervened in many Trump campaign lawsuits following the 2020 election. Likewise, Republican organizations have intervened in nearly every case challenging Republican-passed voter suppression laws. The proliferation of ostensibly nonpartisan groups focused on policies like “election security” suggests interventions (or at least attempted interventions) may only grow more common as Republicans pass suppressive laws and utilize their proxies to help defend them. And while interventions can serve a vital role in litigation, they can also be used merely to obstruct and delay justice.