SUPREME COURT OPINION ALERT: Court Strikes Down Minnesota’s Ban on “Political” Attire at Polling Places

Today, the Supreme Court decided Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky, which involves whether Minnesota’s ban on “political” apparel at polling places on election day violates the First Amendment.  (We previewed the case here.)  In a 7-2 decision, and in an opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court ruled against the state of Minnesota and struck down the state’s law as an unconstitutional restriction of free speech.  The opinion is about as gentle of a way as possible for a court to tell a state that it was violating the constitution.

Although the Court noted that Minnesota has a “permissible objective” in making sure that the act of voting is done free from “disruptive” activity, the problem with Minnesota’s law is the word “political” in it.  The Court found that it the law fails to “articulate some sensible basis” for what the law covers and what it doesn’t.  At oral argument, Justice Alito hammered this point hard:

“The problem is that so many things have political connotations, and the connotations are in the eye of the beholder. … It’s an invitation for arbitrary enforcement and enforcement that’s not even-handed.  And I have no idea where the line lies. … An AFL-CIO shirt, that would be prohibited? … How about a shirt with a rainbow flag? … How about a shirt that says “Parkland Strong” … How about an NRA shirt? … How about a shirt with the text of the Second Amendment? … How about the First Amendment?”

The Court grabbed on to Justice Alito’s concerns.  “An indeterminate prohibition carries with it the opportunity for abuse, especially where it has received a virtually open-ended interpretation.”  The Chief Justice summarized that, while Minnesota’s intentions were well-placed, the law lacked reasonable, manageable standards.

“Minnesota, like other States, has sought to strike the balance in a way that affords the voter the opportunity to exercise his civic duty in a setting removed from the clamor and din of electioneering.  While that choice is generally worthy of our respect, Minnesota has not supported its good intentions with a law capable of reasoned application.”

The Court hinted that Minnesota’s law would be constitutional if it were similar to those of other states, which define a bit more clearly what is and is not permitted to be worn at polling places on election day.  We’ll see if Minnesota decides to revise its law before the 2018 election.  Unlikely, we think.

Case: Minn. Voters Alliance v. Mansky, No. 16-1435 (U.S. June 14, 2018) (opinion here).

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