Acting quickly to rule before election day, a federal trial judge in New Jersey rejected — for the time being at least — a broad claim by the Democratic National Committee that the Republican National Committee has teamed up with the Donald Trump presidential campaign to intimidate voters. The GOP thus was spared from being held in contempt of court and from being otherwise penalized.
U.S. District Judge John Michael Vazquez of Newark, in a 36-page opinion, found some evidence that efforts to combat GOP fears of “voter fraud” may have gone too far, but then ruled they had not gone far enough — based on current facts — to prove that the RNC was violating a long-standing court order against targeting minority voters.
He expressed some concern about public statements by Trump’s vice presidential running mate, Gov Mike Pence of Indiana, by Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, and by RNC chairman Reince Preibus, suggesting that aggressive poll-watching tactics were being used or threatened, and that the RNC and the Trump campaign might be somehow linked in those efforts. The judge said those comments might be “probative” of potential violations, but did not finally demonstrate that.
However, the judge said he would take up the Democrats’ complaint anew after the election, and may give that party’s lawyers a chance to demand more detailed information from the GOP about efforts in any state to go to polling stations to try to thwart Democratic voters. He set no timetable for that further review.
Based on his present conclusions, Judge Vazquez denied these four pleas from the DNC: to hold the RNC in contempt of court for violating the 1982 consent decree (still in effect) against intimidating minority voters, to impose sanctions for that, to issue a new court order barring such violations, and to extend the consent order for another ten years. The consent decree is currently due to expire on December 17, 2017.
All of those denials, the judge said, were made “without prejudice” — that is, the DNC could renew requests for them. He said he was not at this point limiting what information the DNC could seek. He seemed most concerned about DNC claims that some GOP operatives at polling stations in Nevada might have been violating the consent decree, but he did not settle that definitively.
Judge Vazquez looked with skepticism on some of the specific claims the DNC had made to him, because he found that the 1982 consent decree does not apply to GOP state party leaders, and that the decree applied to the RNC and not to the Trump campaign if it were not acting jointly with the RNC. The DNC had cited statements about potential intimidation by the GOP state chairs in Pennsylvania and Michigan.
The judge said that time “constraints” had limited the opportunity to gather factual data.
The entire proceeding begun by the DNC on October 26 was completed in just 11 days, with a hefty stack of court filings, several telephone conferences between the judge and the two sides’ lawyers, and two hearings. His final opinion and order came out less than 24 hou after the final hearing on Friday afternoon.