In an order released late today in the voting rights cases pending in federal court in Winston-Salem, U.S. District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder upheld an earlier magistrate’s ruling which rejected state lawmakers’ efforts to withhold emails relating to the passage of the voting law changes last session under a claim of absolute legislative privilege.
In that prior ruling, Magistrate Judge Joi Elizabeth Peake adopted a flexible approach to the disclosure of emails and other communications created during the time that lawmakers were considering the voting law changes ultimately enacted last session. Peake found that at least some of the communications sought were not absolutely protected — communications with constituents or other third-parties, for example – and should be produced. The judge also held that other documents might likewise have to be disclosed if the need for them in the voting rights context outweighed any intrusion on the legislative process.
That’s an approach that courts elsewhere have adopted — in Florida, Texas, and Wisconsin, for example — weighing the need of legislators to be free from harassing questions about their decision-making processes with the needs of citizens suspicious of those lawmakers’ motives – and in the end, ordering the disclosure of at least some information.
“This is a place where courts have rarely spoken, but clearly the concern that legislative officials might not be acting with the best interests of their public in mind has caused this issue to arise more frequently,” said Justin Levitt, a voting law expert and professor at Loyola Law School.
Attorneys for the parties challenging the voting law changes called today’s ruling a victory for the integrity of elections and the transparency of the legislative process.
“This ruling means lawmakers will no longer be allowed to hide behind a veil of secrecy,” Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement. “If politicians are going to tamper with people’s fundamental right to vote, we deserve to know why.”