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Case Name Western Native Voice v. Stapleton VR-MT-0016
Docket / Court DV-2020-0377 ( State Court )
State/Territory Montana
Case Type(s) Election/Voting Rights
Attorney Organization ACLU Affiliates (any)
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 ... read more >
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.

Justin Hill - 12/18/2020

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Issues and Causes of Action
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Constitutional Clause
Due Process: Procedural Due Process
Freedom of speech/association
Content of Injunction
Preliminary relief granted
Voting access
Plaintiff Type
Private Plaintiff
American Indian/Alaskan Native
Election administration
Vote dilution
Causes of Action State law
Defendant(s) Montana Attorney General
Montana Commissioner of Political Practices
Montana Secretary of State
Plaintiff Description Voting Rights Organizations and Native Americans Tribes
Indexed Lawyer Organizations ACLU Affiliates (any)
Class action status sought No
Class action status outcome Not sought
Filed Pro Se No
Prevailing Party Plaintiff
Public Int. Lawyer Yes
Nature of Relief Preliminary injunction / Temp. restraining order
Injunction / Injunctive-like Settlement
Source of Relief Litigation
Filed 03/12/2020
Case Closing Year 2020
Case Ongoing No
Additional Resources
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  Western Native Voice v. Stapleton
Date: Sep. 25, 2020
By: American Civil Liberties Union
[ Detail ] [ External Link ]

Court Docket(s)
No docket sheet currently in the collection
General Documents
State Trial Court
VR-MT-0016-0001.pdf | Detail
Source: ACLU
State Trial Court
Order Granting Plaintiffs' Motion for Temporary Restraining Order and Order Setting Hearing on Plaintiffs' Motion for Preliminary Injunction
VR-MT-0016-0002.pdf | Detail
Source: ACLU
State Trial Court
Order Granting Plaintiff's Motion for Preliminary Injunctive Relief
VR-MT-0016-0003.pdf | Detail
State Trial Court
Courts Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Order
VR-MT-0016-0004.pdf | Detail
Source: ACLU
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Judges Fehr, Jessica T. Court not on record show/hide docs
VR-MT-0016-0002 | VR-MT-0016-0003 | VR-MT-0016-0004
Plaintiff's Lawyers Alvernaz, Lillian (Montana) show/hide docs
De Leon, Jacqueline (Colorado) show/hide docs
Ho, Dale E. (New York) show/hide docs
Landreth, Natalie (Alaska) show/hide docs
Rate, Alex (Montana) show/hide docs
Thomas-Lundborg, Alora (New York) show/hide docs

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