Case: Western Native Voice v. Stapleton

20-00377 | Montana state trial court

Filed Date: March 12, 2020

Closed Date: Oct. 15, 2020

Clearinghouse coding complete

Case Summary

On March 12, 2020, Western Native Voice, Montana Native Vote, and multiple Native American tribes filed this lawsuit in the Thirteenth Judicial District Court of Montana seeking to invalidate the Montana Ballot Interference Prevention Act (BIPA). The plaintiffs, represented by the ACLU of Montana and the Native American Rights Fund, sued the Montana Secretary of State, Attorney General, and Commissioner of Political Practices. They sought attorneys' fees and declaratory and injunctive relief ba…

On March 12, 2020, Western Native Voice, Montana Native Vote, and multiple Native American tribes filed this lawsuit in the Thirteenth Judicial District Court of Montana seeking to invalidate the Montana Ballot Interference Prevention Act (BIPA). The plaintiffs, represented by the ACLU of Montana and the Native American Rights Fund, sued the Montana Secretary of State, Attorney General, and Commissioner of Political Practices. They sought attorneys' fees and declaratory and injunctive relief based on their right to vote, freedom of speech, freedom of association, and right to due process (both facially and as-applied) as provided by the Montana Constitution. Judge Jessica Fehr oversaw the proceedings.

The plaintiffs alleged that BIPA would inhibit Native Americans' ability to vote. The Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck, Blackfeet Nation, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Crow Tribe, and the Fort Belknap Indian Community are located in rural areas and many tribal members lack the means to travel to deliver their ballots. Furthermore, higher levels of poverty in the communities make it less likely that the tribal members can use mail-ballot drop-off locations at polling places without the benefit of assistance. These factors often cause tribal members to rely on collection services to cast their votes.

Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote are two independent organizations that collect ballots from tribal members in remote regions. BIPA would limit organizers from collecting more than six ballots per person, and impose fines for violations. The two organizations allege that this limit inhibit their ability to collect ballots since they could not fund or train enough collectors to sufficiently reach the remote locations of the tribes. The plaintiffs further alleged that the lack of ballot collectors would lead to restricted ability to vote among the tribal members.

On May 20, the trial court issued a Temporary Restraining Order blocking BIPA after finding the defendants' arguments of timeliness unpersuasive. After the court issued the TRO, the defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss the Plaintiff's Motion for Preliminary Injunction, arguing that it was too similar to Driscoll v. Stapleton. The Court denied the motion, finding that the parties in each case were separate and distinct. More information about Driscoll can be found here.

The Court followed its TRO order by issuing a Preliminary Injunction on July 7. The Court found that, based on expert affidavits, BIPA would "significantly suppress voter turnout by disproportionately harming rural communities, especially Native Americans in rural tribal communities." Because the law infringed upon the Plaintiffs' fundamental right right to vote, the Plaintiffs demonstrated irreparable harm and therefore the Court granted the Preliminary Injunction.

The court held a two-day non-jury trial starting on September 8, 2020. In an opinion written by Judge Jessica Feher, the court applied strict scrutiny to evaluate BIPA in accordance with established Montana constitutional interpretation in voting rights cases. The court concluded that BIPA "arbitrarily and disparately infring[es] on the right of Native Americans in the state to vote." The court found that BIPA violated the Plaintiffs' rights to vote, free speech, and due process, and therefore permanently enjoined the statute.

The defendants appealed the decision, but shortly after the Montana Supreme Court issued its opinion in Driscoll v. Stapleton, voluntarily moved to dismiss it. The Montana Supreme Court granted the motion on October 15, 2020. The case is now closed.

Summary Authors

Justin Hill (12/18/2020)

People


Judge(s)

Fehr, Jessica T. (Montana)

Attorneys(s) for Plaintiff

Alvernaz, Lillian (Montana)

De Leon, Jacqueline (Colorado)

Ho, Dale E. (New York)

Landreth, Natalie (Alaska)

Rate, Alex (Montana)

Thomas-Lundborg, Alora (New York)

Judge(s)

Fehr, Jessica T. (Montana)

Attorneys(s) for Plaintiff

Alvernaz, Lillian (Montana)

De Leon, Jacqueline (Colorado)

Ho, Dale E. (New York)

Landreth, Natalie (Alaska)

Rate, Alex (Montana)

Thomas-Lundborg, Alora (New York)

Documents in the Clearinghouse

Document

Complaint

March 12, 2020 Complaint

Order Granting Plaintiffs' Motion for Temporary Restraining Order and Order Setting Hearing on Plaintiffs' Motion for Preliminary Injunction

May 20, 2020 Order/Opinion

Order Granting Plaintiff's Motion for Preliminary Injunctive Relief

July 7, 2020 Order/Opinion

Courts Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Order

Sept. 25, 2020 Order/Opinion

Resources

Title Description External URL

Western Native Voice v. Stapleton

American Civil Liberties Union

The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Montana, and Native American Rights Fund are challenging a Montana law that severely restricts Native Americans’ access to the ballot. Sept. 25, 2020 https://www.aclu.org/cases/western-native-voice-v-stapleton

Docket

Last updated May 11, 2022, 8 p.m.

Docket sheet not available via the Clearinghouse.

State / Territory: Montana

Case Type(s):

Election/Voting Rights

Key Dates

Filing Date: March 12, 2020

Closing Date: Oct. 15, 2020

Case Ongoing: No

Plaintiffs

Plaintiff Description:

Voting Rights Organizations and Native Americans Tribes

Plaintiff Type(s):

Private Plaintiff

Attorney Organizations:

ACLU Affiliates (any)

Public Interest Lawyer: Yes

Filed Pro Se: No

Class Action Sought: No

Class Action Outcome: Not sought

Defendants

Montana Secretary of State, State

Montana Attorney General, State

Montana Commissioner of Political Practices, State

Case Details

Causes of Action:

State law

Constitutional Clause(s):

Due Process: Procedural Due Process

Freedom of speech/association

Availably Documents:

Complaint (any)

Injunctive (or Injunctive-like) Relief

Any published opinion

Outcome

Prevailing Party: Plaintiff

Nature of Relief:

Injunction / Injunctive-like Settlement

Preliminary injunction / Temp. restraining order

Source of Relief:

Litigation

Content of Injunction:

Preliminary relief granted

Issues

General:

Voting

Voting access

Race:

American Indian/Alaskan Native

Voting:

Election administration

Vote dilution