Civil rights lawsuit revived against Nevada agency

CARSON CITY — A federal appeals court on Thursday revived a lawsuit alleging that the Nevada Health and Human Services Department has been disenfranchising potential low-income and disabled voters by not providing registration materials to clients at its offices as required by federal law.

The civil rights lawsuit, filed in 2012 by the National Council of Las Raza and two branches of the NAACP, had been dismissed by U.S. District Court Judge Robert Clive Jones after he determined the groups had no standing to bring the claims.

A panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision, reviving the complaint that Nevada state officials are violating Section 7 of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 by failing to make voter registration materials available to people who visit their offices.

The case was returned to U.S. District Court for further proceedings.

The decision was hailed by voting rights groups, including Demos, Project Vote and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which represented the plaintiffs along with the law firms Dechert LLP and the Reno firm Woodburn and Wedge.

“Today’s decision is a victory for low-income voters in Nevada and the community groups that serve them,” said Brenda Wright, vice president for Legal Strategies at Demos. “The Ninth Circuit’s decision recognizes the fundamental importance of access to the courts in protecting the right to vote. We are pleased that the Ninth Circuit has rectified a miscarriage of justice by reinstating our clients’ voting rights claims.”

The decision means that the voting rights groups will have an opportunity to prove their claims at trial.

In a rare decision, the court also reassigned the case to a different judge, calling Jones’ decision to dismiss the complaint “unusual.” Typically a complaint is allowed to be amended unless there was evidence of bad faith or undue delay.

“We reluctantly conclude that we must reassign this case. The errors made by the district judge may suggest to a reasonable outside observer that reassignment ‘to maintain the appearance of justice’ is necessary,” said the decision written by Judge William Fletcher.

Section 7 of the act requires states to facilitate voter registration for low-income or disabled individuals who do not have driver’s licenses and so might not visit a DMV office where such materials are readily available.

The groups that filed the lawsuit sent a letter to the Nevada secretary of state’s office in May 2012 that the number of voter registration applications submitted to Nevada public assistance offices declined by 95 percent from a high in 2001-02 to 2009-10, despite a fourfold increase in the number of food stamp applications during this same period.

The groups found that clerks in seven of nine offices they visited provided voter registration application forms only to those who asked for them. Two of the nine offices did not have any voter application forms at all. The state has 16 welfare offices around the state, with seven in Clark County.

The agency ramped up voter outreach efforts in 2012 after the lawsuit was filed. Officials with the Department of Health and Human Services could not immediately be reached for comment on the appeals court decision.

Contact Sean Whaley at swhaley@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3900. Find him on Twitter: @seanw801

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