Court reinstates S. Carolina ballot witness requirement

By Jessica Gresko
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Monday reinstated a requirement that South Carolina residents voting by mail in November’s election get a witness to sign their ballots.

Democrats had sought to have the requirement put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic, but Republicans had defended it as deterring fraud.

While the high court reinstated the requirement as a lawsuit over it proceeds, voters have already started returning ballots. More than 200,000 absentee ballots have been mailed and 18,000 returned, according to the state’s election commission.

The court said that any ballots cast before the court’s action Monday evening “and received within two days of this order may not be rejected for failing to comply with the witness requirement.”

State Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick cheered the decision. “Despite the Democrats’ efforts to hijack a pandemic and use it to meddle with our election laws, they’ve lost,” he said in a statement.

“We’re pleased the Supreme Court reinstated the witness signature requirement and recognized its importance in helping to prevent election fraud.”

State Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson expressed disappointment with the decision. “Our hope is that no one gets COVID-19 trying to find a witness. We are disappointed but elections have consequences,” he said in a statement.

South Carolina has had a witness requirement for absentee voters since 1953. Under the current law, voters returning mail-in ballots swear an oath printed on the return envelope that confirms they are eligible to vote and that the ballot inside is theirs, among other things. The oath has to be witnessed by one other person who has to sign below the voter’s signature and write their address.

Pointing to the coronavirus pandemic, state and national Democratic Party organizations and several individual voters challenged the requirement and other parts of state election law. And a judge blocked the witness requirement before the state’s primary in June.

After the primary and response to the pandemic, state lawmakers made changes to the state’s election law, including allowing all residents to vote absentee in November. But they left the witness requirement in place.

U.S. District Court Judge J. Michelle Childs, an appointee of President Barack Obama, late last month put the witness requirement on hold for the presidential election. She wrote that it could increase the risk of some voters of contracting the virus and require other voters already infected with the virus to risk exposing witnesses.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reinstated the requirement before the full appeals court reversed course and put it on hold again.

As is typical when the Supreme Court acts on an emergency basis, the justices did not explain their decision. But Justice Brett Kavanaugh, writing only for himself, said he agreed with it for two reasons. He said it wasn’t for a court to second-guess the lawmakers’ decision to retain the witness requirement during the pandemic. And he said that for many years the Supreme Court has “emphasized that federal courts ordinarily should not alter state election rules in the period close to an election.”

Three other justices — Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch — would have required ballots that have already been returned to have a witness signature to count.

The Supreme Court has recently dealt with other cases involving ballot witness requirements for November’s election. In Rhode Island, the court left in place an agreement by state officials to allow residents to vote by mail without getting signatures from two witnesses or a notary. But in Alabama, where a court had put on hold in three large counties a requirement that voters get their absentee ballot notarized or witnessed by two adults, the justices reinstated it.

Approximately a dozen states that require mail-in ballot envelopes to be signed by one or more witnesses or a notary.
Associated Press writer Michelle Liu in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.

Court allows minor leaguers’ class action over pay

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court is allowing a class-action lawsuit to proceed from minor league baseball players who allege they are being paid less than minimum wage.

The lawsuit involves minor league players in Arizona, California and Florida. The justices offered no comment Monday in rejecting Major League Baseball’s appeal.

The players first sued major league teams in February 2014, claiming most earn less than $7,500 annually in violation of several laws. A judge had initially allowed only the California players to sue, but the federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled in favor of the players from Arizona and Florida.

“The Supreme Court’s decision to let the class certification decision stand is great news for minor league players,” said Korein Tillery LLC, the firm representing the players. “After almost four years on appeal, the players can now return to the trial court to ensure that Major League Baseball and team owners comply with minimum and overtime wage laws, a welcome development for minor leaguers in a very unusual year.”

The minor league season was canceled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Teams provided players $400 per week for most or all of the season anyway, a sum that represented a raise for many lower-level minor leaguers.

Major League Baseball plans to raise minor league salaries in 2021, pushing the minimum yearly salary for a full-season player at Class A from $5,800 to $10,000. The league is expected to shrink the minor leagues by as much as 25% after failing to renew its agreement last month with the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues.

“While Major League Baseball does not comment on ongoing litigation, MLB remains focused on modernizing its player development system to enhance the minor league experience for players, including providing them with renovated facilities, reduced travel, and improved daily working conditions,” MLB said in a statement Monday. “MLB had long planned to increase minor league player salaries as part of our next agreement with minor league clubs, and announced earlier this year that minor league players would be receiving salary increases ranging from 38% to 72% for the 2021 season.”

Justices reject South Dakota’s only death row inmate’s case

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court refused on Monday to take up an appeal from South Dakota’s only death row inmate, who pleaded guilty to taking part in a torture killing 20 years ago.

The court did not comment in leaving in place the death sentence for Briley Piper, 39, of Anchorage, Alaska, who was one of three people convicted in the killing of Chester Allen Poage of Spearfish, South Dakota. One has been executed and the other is serving a life sentence in prison.

Prosecutors said the three men were high on methamphetamine and LSD when they decided to burglarize Poage’s home. The episode ended with the men stoning Poage to death. One of the defendants, Elijah Page, was executed in 2007. A third man, Darrell Hoadley, was convicted at trial and sentenced to life in prison.

The South Dakota Supreme Court upheld Poage’s sentence in 2019. Justices said the arguments from Piper were “untimely” and didn’t contest his guilt, Piper had argued in his appeal that his guilty pleas were not made voluntarily or intelligently, and he blamed his defense counsel for that.

South Dakota’s last execution was in November 2019, when Charles Russell Rhines died by lethal injection for the 1992 fatal stabbing of a doughnut shop worker.

Court won’t take up ex-Kentucky clerk Kim Davis’ case

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court is leaving in place a decision that allowed a lawsuit to move forward against a Kentucky clerk who was jailed in 2015 after refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The high court said Monday it would not take the case involving Kim Davis, the former clerk of Rowan County, and two same-sex couples who had sued her. Soon after the 2015 Supreme Court decision in which same-sex couples won the right to marry nationwide, Davis, a Christian who has a religious objection to same-sex marriage, stopped issuing all marriage licenses.

That led to lawsuits against her, and a judge ordered Davis to issue the licenses. She spent five days in jail after refusing.

Davis had argued that a legal doctrine called qualified immunity protected her from being sued for damages by couples David Ermold and David Moore as well as James Yates and Will Smith. Their case will now move forward.

Davis, a Republican, ultimately lost her bid for reelection in 2018. Democrat Elwood Caudill Jr. is now the county’s clerk.

Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas wrote for himself and Justice Samuel Alito that while he agreed with the decision not to hear the case, it was a “stark reminder of the consequences” of the court’s 2015 decision in the same-sex marriage case. Because of that case, he wrote, “those with sincerely held religious beliefs concerning marriage will find it increasingly difficult to participate in society without running afoul” of the case “and its effect on other antidiscrimination laws.”

Court declines to get involved in Steinbeck dispute

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court is leaving in place a decision awarding the late John Steinbeck’s stepdaughter $5 million in a family dispute over abandoned plans for movies of some of Steinbeck’s best-known works.

The high court said Monday it would not take up the dispute involving the Nobel Prize-winning author’s stepdaughter Waverly Kaffaga, his late son Thomas Steinbeck and his daughter-in-law Gail Steinbeck.

The author of “The Grapes of Wrath” died in 1968 and legal wrangling among his heirs has continued for decades. When he died, Steinbeck left the vast majority of his estate to Kaffaga’s mother Elaine, his third wife. Each of his two sons got $50,000. Legal wrangling ensued and has continued despite agreements between the parties over royalties and control of Steinbeck’s works.

In the case the Supreme Court declined to get involved in, Kaffaga alleged that Thomas Steinbeck and his wife had continued to claim various rights in Steinbeck works despite losses in court. That, she said, led multiple Hollywood producers to abandon negotiations with her to develop screenplays for remakes of “The Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden.”

A jury in Los Angeles awarded her a total of $13 million and an appeals court upheld the verdict in 2019 but struck down $8 million in punitive damages.