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State Court Oral Arguments to Watch for in June

Issues on the dockets include early voting, rules for poll watchers, discretionary sentencing, and a climate change trial brought by young plaintiffs.

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Each month, State Court Report previews upcoming oral arguments in prominent or interesting state court cases.

In June, state supreme courts will take up a wide range of issues, including laws permitting early in-person voting, the appealability of discretionary sentences, and a government-imposed “church purposes only” deed restriction. As a special feature this month, State Court Report is also previewing a trial. In the nation’s second-ever state constitutional climate trial, 13 youth plaintiffs are taking Hawaii to task over its transportation sector’s contributions to climate change.

Will Delaware Will Keep In-Person Early Voting? — June 5

Albence v. Menella, Delaware Supreme Court

The Delaware Supreme Court will decide the constitutionality of a 2019 law permitting early in-person voting “at least 10 days before an election.” A trial court found the law ran afoul of a state constitutional provision specifying that elections be held on a particular day: “the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November.” The plaintiffs, a Republican state senator and a former elections inspector, argue the provision requires just one day of voting. The state argues this language refers to the day voters make their collective final determination — which happens on Election Day itself — whether or not some ballots are cast before that day. This argument echoes an amicus brief filed by 14 states that allow early voting and most of which have similar language in their constitutions, including Arizona, Minnesota, and Nevada. The case also challenges a 2010 statute allowing some voters who are already eligible to vote absentee to apply for permanent absentee status. Watch the arguments here.

Can a Criminal Sentence Be Appealed as Too Harsh? — June 5

Parrish v. State, Florida Supreme Court

The Florida Supreme Court will resolve a split among the state’s appellate courts over whether a trial judge’s choice not to impose a sentence that falls below the statutory range for the crime — known as a “downward departure” — is appealable by a defendant. A Florida statute says prosecutors may appeal the judge’s decision to grant a downward departure, but whether a statute or court rule permits a defendant to challenge denial of a departure is disputed. The plaintiff, who had sought a downward departure based on his youth and mental disorder, argues that statutory authorization is unnecessary because this right is encompassed in the state constitutional right to appeal. The state counters that the Florida Supreme Court has “vacillated” on whether the state constitution creates an individual right to appeal and, even if it does, it does not specify the sorts of issues that may be raised. Extending appellate review beyond legal error to claims that a trial judge’s exercise of sentencing discretion was too harsh would be a “radical shift,” the state argues. Watch the arguments here.

Michigan Supreme Court to Consider Restrictions on Election ChallengesJune 18

O’Halloran v. Sec. of State, Michigan Supreme Court

The Michigan Supreme Court will decide the legality of certain instructions for election challengers and poll watchers issued by the secretary of state in 2022 in response to reports of widespread disruption by challengers in 2020. The provisions at issue include limitations on whom challengers may communicate with at polling places and a provision permitting poll workers to eject challengers who make repeated baseless challenges. Lower courts sided with the plaintiffs — including the Republican National Committee — who allege that the instructions violate both the state’s election law and, by not going through the rulemaking process, the state administrative procedures act. In addition to statutory arguments, the state defendants and amicus groups argue that the state constitution’s right to vote, including a 2022 amendment that expressly protects voters from “harassing, threatening, or intimidating conduct,” provides separate legal authority for the instructions, particularly the ejection remedy in light of the state’s 2020 experience. Watch the arguments here.

Another Historic Youth Climate Trial in Hawaii — June 24

Navahine F. v. Hawaii Dept. of Transportation, Hawaii Environmental Court, First Circuit

Trial will begin in a challenge by 13 youth plaintiffs to the state’s operation of a transportation system that they allege violates their right to a “clean and healthful environment,” as well as the state’s constitutional duty to conserve natural resources for “the benefit of present and future generations.” Hawaii has been a leader in acknowledging the dangers of climate change, the plaintiffs allege, but runs a transportation sector that continues to prioritize fossil fuel use over greener alternatives, resulting in increasing greenhouse gas emissions and “existential harms” to the state’s natural resources. The plaintiffs seek injunctive relief, including appointment of a special master to oversee the transportation agency’s decarbonization efforts. Youth plaintiffs in Montana won a similar environmental rights trial last August; an appeal of that victory will be heard by the Montana Supreme Court in July.

Hawaii to Consider Novel Religious Establishment Questions — June 25

Hilo Bay Marina v. State, Hawaii Supreme Court

The Hawaii Supreme Court is set to consider whether a 100-year-old deed restriction requiring that property sold to the Mormon Church be used “for church purposes only” violates the Hawaii Constitution’s religious freedom clause, the First Amendment, or state statute. The plaintiffs, the current owners of the property, ask the court to interpret the religious freedom clause for the time in nearly 40 years and to resolve unsettled questions of whether that clause is co-extensive with the First Amendment and, if more protective, what analysis should apply. They say evidence from Hawaii’s constitutional convention supports analyzing the claim separately under a contemporaneous test the U.S. Supreme Court has since abandoned. The state responds that the Supreme Court’s current Establishment Clause test looking to “historical practices” controls, and the deed restriction here was just a historical form of zoning. Listen to the arguments here.

Erin Geiger Smith is a writer and editor at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Sarah Kessler is an attorney and a contributing writer for State Court Report.

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