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Trump-Appointed Federal Judge Rejects Claim That Pennsylvania Supreme Court ‘Changed the Rules’ for Counting Ballots


WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 03: President Donald Trump speaks about the election after presenting the Medal of Freedom to former college football coach Lou Holtz in the Oval Office of the White House on December 3, 2020 in Washington, DC. Holtz is best known for his time as head coach of University of Notre Dame's football team, winning a national championship in the 1988 season.

A federal judge appointed by President Donald Trump has rejected the widely-repeated claim that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court changed the voting rules to give Democrats an unfair advantage in the 2020 election, handing Republicans yet another post-election legal loss on Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan of the Western District of Pennsylvania upheld the 69-vote victory of State Senator Jim Brewster (D), who represents the Pittsburgh-adjacent City of McKeesport in Allegheny County. The decision came exactly one week after Republicans in the chamber refused to seat Brewster, citing Republican challenger Nicole Ziccarelli’s pending lawsuit which claimed that 311 mail-in ballots were erroneously counted by Allegheny election officials.

Ziccarelli’s lawsuit hinged on the fact that while Allegheny County counted ballots cast by voters who did not write the date next to their signatures, officials in nearby Westmoreland County discarded such ballots.

Though the decision to count undated ballots aligned with Pennsylvania Supreme Court precedent, Ziccarelli argued that the decision violated Pennsylvania’s election code, and the disparate treatment violated her equal-protection and due process rights.

But in a 14-page order, Ranjan, whom Trump appointed to the bench in 2018, reasoned that Ziccarelli’s claims were based on a faulty interpretation of the state Supreme Court’s ruling.

“The Court’s fundamental disagreement is with Ms. Ziccarelli’s interpretation of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision. Contrary to Ms. Ziccarelli’s reading, the Court finds that the Supreme Court expressly held that the undated ballots at issue remain valid ballots that are properly counted under state law,” Ranjan wrote. “Thus, because Ms. Ziccarelli’s federal constitutional claims all depend on the invalidity of the ballots under state law, those claims necessarily fail on the merits. That is, even if applying disparate counting standards in Allegheny and Westmoreland Counties creates an equal-protection concern, the validity of the challenged ballots forecloses any argument that Allegheny County is responsible for that violation, or that the Court could throw out Allegheny County’s ballots as a remedy.”

Ranjan also expressly rejected the notion that the state Supreme Court’s ruling changed any of the procedural rules governing Pennsylvania’s elections.

“Similarly, Ms. Ziccarelli claims that her substantive due process rights have been violated because the ‘rules have changed,’ i.e., the ‘rule’ before the election was to not count undated ballots, but Defendants changed the rules by counting and certifying those ballots. Not so. In interpreting the statute, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was necessarily deciding whether these ballots were valid at the time they were cast—that is, before the election and before votes were counted,” the judge wrote. “That the case reached the Pennsylvania Supreme Court after the election does not evince a ‘change in the rules.’”

Following the court’s decision, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) said Republicans in the Senate should move to immediately swear in Sen. Brewster.

“The voters decide elections, not powerful Harrisburg politicians,” Wolf said. “Senate Republicans may not like the outcome of the election, but they cannot overturn the will of the people in western Pennsylvania or ignore court decisions. The people’s ballots are counted, and the results are accurate. Refusing to seat Sen. Brewster and leaving the district without a voice would be unethical and undemocratic. The Senate Republicans have no choice. Sen. Brewster must be sworn in.”

Read the full decision below:

Ranjan Opinion Ziccarelli 1.12.21 by Law&Crime on Scribd

[image via Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images]

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.