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Case Name NAACP Philadelphia v. Ridge VR-PA-0033
Docket / Court 2:00-cv-02855 ( E.D. Pa. )
State/Territory Pennsylvania
Case Type(s) Election/Voting Rights
Attorney Organization Brennan Center for Justice
Case Summary
On June 7, 2000 plaintiffs, three formerly incarcerated residents of Pennsylvania denied the right to vote filed a lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and City of Philadelphia arguing that the Pennsylvania Voter Registration Act (PVRA) was unconstitutional in the United States District ... read more >
On June 7, 2000 plaintiffs, three formerly incarcerated residents of Pennsylvania denied the right to vote filed a lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and City of Philadelphia arguing that the Pennsylvania Voter Registration Act (PVRA) was unconstitutional in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The complaint sought injunctive and declaratory relief, and the plaintiffs were represented by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Philadelphia and other public interest organizations. The case was assigned to Judge Louis Bechtle.

The complaint asserted that, without a rational basis, the PVRA prohibits some ex-felons from voting during the five year period following their release from prison, while permitting other ex-felons to vote during the same period. The law, plaintiffs argued, was irrational and arbitrary because it distinguished between ex-felons who registered to vote before incarceration and those who did not, as well as between ex-felons who changed residences after incarceration and those who did not. Consequently, plaintiffs alleged that the law violated the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the 14th Amendment. Plaintiffs sought to permanently enjoin the defendants from enforcing the provisions of the PVRA that bar all convicted felons from being entitled to be registered to vote if they were released from prison within the last five years and eliminate the forms used to register a person requiring an applicant to confirm that they have “not been confined in a penal institution for a conviction of a felony within the last five years.”

The defendants countered that the PVRA does not unconstitutionally distinguish between groups of ex-felons because no ex-felons are entitled to be registered or to vote during the five year period following their release from prison. Ultimately the parties stipulated to consolidate Plaintiffs' motion for preliminary injunction with the merits determination for a permanent injunction.

Procedural history
On August 14, 2020, Judge Bechtle denied the motion for a permanent injunction. 2000 WL 1146619. The Court held that at least one of the individual plaintiffs had standing to bring the lawsuit, and also that the NAACP had organizational standing. The standing of other plaintiffs was unclear, but assumed for the purposes of the opinion. Judge Bechtel found that it was appropriate for the court to invoke the Pullman abstention doctrine to avoid reaching a decision on the constitutional question.

The Pullman doctrine applies when a federal constitutional issue "might be mooted or presented in a different posture by a state court" which could construe the statute in a manner that "might avoid in whole or in part the necessity for federal constitutional adjudication, or at least materially change the nature of the problem." To abstain from deciding a case under Pullman, a court must find "(1) uncertain issues of state law underlying the federal constitutional claim; (2) state law issues subject to state court interpretation that could obviate the need to adjudicate or substantially narrow the scope of the federal constitutional claim; and (3) the possibility that an erroneous construction of state law by the federal court would disrupt important state policies." Judge Bechtle found that Pullman doctrine applied in this case because both the defendants' and plaintiffs' construction of the statute were plausible, rendering the statute ambiguous, and because Pennsylvania state courts had not yet evaluated the constitutionality of the statute in light of that ambiguity. The court agreed with the defendant's argument that if they were to do so, they might find that the statute had a narrower, constitutional meaning, and that voting regulations implicate important state policies that an erroneous construction of the PVRA would disrupt state policy goals.

The court retained jurisdiction over the case in case the federal constitutional issue were to arise again. The plaintiffs appealed on August 23, 2000. The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit issued an order on on January 29, 2001 vacating Judge Bechtle's August 14, 2000 order and instructing the district court to dismiss the case. The district court issued an order dismissing the case on February 5, 2001.

Graham Rotenberg - 07/06/2020

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Issues and Causes of Action
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Constitutional Clause
Due Process
Equal Protection
Plaintiff Type
Private Plaintiff
Voter registration rules
Causes of Action 42 U.S.C. § 1983
Defendant(s) Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia City Commissioners
Plaintiff Description Formerly incarcerated individuals denied the ability to register to vote by a Pennsylvania statute
Indexed Lawyer Organizations Brennan Center for Justice
Class action status sought No
Class action status outcome Not sought
Filed Pro Se No
Prevailing Party Defendant
Public Int. Lawyer Yes
Nature of Relief None
Source of Relief None
Filed 06/07/2000
Case Closing Year 2001
Case Ongoing No
Additional Resources
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Court Docket(s)
E.D. Pa.
VR-PA-0033-9000.pdf | Detail
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
General Documents
E.D. Pa.
Memorandum and Order [ECF# 25] (2000 WL 1146619)
VR-PA-0033-0001.pdf | WESTLAW | Detail
Source: Westlaw
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Judges Bechtle, Louis Charles (E.D. Pa.) show/hide docs
VR-PA-0033-0001 | VR-PA-0033-9000
Plaintiff's Lawyers Love, Angus R. (Pennsylvania) show/hide docs
Metzger, Gillian E. (New York) show/hide docs
Northup, Nancy (New York) show/hide docs
Trent, Earl W. Jr. (Pennsylvania) show/hide docs
Defendant's Lawyers Filipi, Francis R. (Pennsylvania) show/hide docs
Lebofsky, Howard (Pennsylvania) show/hide docs

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