Litigation partners Robert Atkins and Alex Oh led
a team of Paul, Weiss lawyers who secured a landmark voting rights
victory in a Florida federal court earlier this year. In
this Q&A, Robert shares some details about the firm's work on
voting rights issues in Florida.
Along with Robert and Alex, the Paul, Weiss team included
Berse and associates Zachary Dietert and Lindsey
Weinstock. The Brennan Center for Justice and the ACLU
Foundation of Florida served as co-counsel.
Q: What were some of the
provisions in the Florida voting law at issue, and how would you
describe their impact on potential
A: The Florida legislature passed a law in 2011 that
deliberately made it more difficult for civic organizations like
the League of Woman Voters to register new voters. The law
imposed so many unnecessary bureaucratic requirements and such
onerous financial (and potentially criminal) penalties for
noncompliance that community groups like the League and others just
stopped registering voters. As one of the law's
sponsors said in a moment of arrogant candor, "This is Florida. We
do make it convenient for people to vote, but I gotta tell ya I
wouldn't even have any problem making it harder. This should not be
For example, the law required every volunteer who collects voter
registration forms to sign an intimidating sworn statement that
falsely suggested the volunteer could be imprisoned if he or she
submitted a form in which a registrant provided incorrect
information, even if the volunteer had no way of knowing about the
innocent mistake. The law also required that volunteers who
submit voter registration forms to Florida elections officials in
person must do so within exactly 48 hours of each form's
completion, or face penalties. For a drive conducted on a
Friday evening or at the beginning of a three-day weekend, the
State interpreted this provision to require that a person
hand-delivering forms do so during the exact minute that an
elections office opens, or subject his or her organization to
potential fines or prosecution.
Q: Your clients, the League of
Women Voters of Florida, Rock the Vote and the Florida Public
Interest Research Group, sought an injunction from federal district
judge Robert Hinkle. What was the scope of the injunction you
sought and what were your arguments in its favor?
A: We sought to enjoin the most burdensome and senseless
provisions of the Florida law, including the provisions I just
described, on the grounds that they unjustifiably restricted our
clients' First Amendment rights to engage in the political speech
and association inherent in voter registration activity. We
also challenged provisions of the law as unconstitutionally vague
and as violations of our clients' rights under the National Voter
Registration Act, a federal statute aimed at increasing the number
of eligible Americans registered to vote.
Q: How did Judge Hinkle rule and
A: Judge Hinkle ruled that Florida's law likely violated our
client's constitutional and federal statutory rights. He
granted a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of several of
the state law's most burdensome requirements, including its 48-hour
deadline for in-person submission of completed forms, the
requirement that volunteers sign a misleading and intimidating
sworn statement before collecting registration forms, and
requirements that groups track every blank form given to their
volunteers and report to the State every time a volunteer ceases
work with the organization.
Q: This has been described as a
landmark victory ... why?
A: This case lays at the intersection of voting rights and free
speech. The decision is the first in the country to strike
down as unconstitutional regulations on voter registration
organizations. It is important precedent because it affirms
the First Amendment rights inherent in voter registration
Q: The Brennan Center for
Justice, which worked on the matter along with the American Civil
Liberties Union Foundation of Florida, and Coffey Burlington,
described the Florida law as "one of a wave of restrictive voting
measures passed in 2011." How have other attempts to oppose
these types of laws fared?
A: The court challenges brought against several other states'
laws have been met with varying degrees of success, and some of
those cases are still pending right now. Judge Hinkle's
decision in our case now adds to the body of law encouraging
federal judges to closely examine the justifications for laws that
suppress voter participation.
Q: Tell us a little about the
Paul, Weiss team on this matter.
A: Lawyers from both our New York and Washington offices worked
on the case. Although Alex Oh and I oversaw the litigation,
the team really was led by Farrah Berse and the heavy lifting was
done by Zachary Dietert and Lindsey Weinstock. Our
former colleagues Bill Taylor and Matt Huppert helped get the
case off the ground.
Q: Tell us about the firm's
relationship with the Brennan Center?
A: Brad and I are both members of the Brennan Center Advisory
Board, and Sidney Rosdeitcher is a Senior Policy Advisor at the
center. Many Paul, Weiss lawyers have worked with the
Brennan Center on litigations involving voting rights, privacy and
national security, and living wage laws. And several of the
lawyers on staff at the Brennan Center are Paul, Weiss alumni.
Q: What did this victory
mean to the Paul, Weiss team and to your clients?
A: Our clients were thrilled with Judge Hinkle's order because
it enabled them to get back to work in advance of the 2012
election, registering new voters and encouraging them to
participate in the political process. Our legal team was
honored to have played an important role in protecting our clients'
rights and expanding the franchise in Florida.
Q: Did the ruling have an impact
on Florida voting in the 2012 election?
A: Absolutely. The ruling meant that our clients were able
to register eligible citizens whose voices might have otherwise
been left out of the electoral process altogether. Ensuring
broad participation in the political process is important in any
state, but it is particularly critical in Florida, where the margin
of victory for the state's electoral college votes in 2012 was less
than 1% of the total votes cast, a smaller margin than in any other
November 16, 2012
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