Shifting the Status Quo
Bill Groth on the fight for the right to vote
Published in 2019 Indiana Super Lawyers magazine
on February 7, 2019
Updated on July 2, 2019
I’ve always been interested in government and politics: I was a history and political science major at Butler, and I ran for political office in 1984, for the Indiana House of Representatives.
In 1990, I got involved in a voting rights case involving the districting plan for the Marion County City-County Council. That was the beginning—the origins of my interest in handling voting and election law cases.
One that stands out is the 2003 litigation over the city-county council districts in Marion County. The case went all the way to the state Supreme Court. I had to argue before a 32-judge tribunal due to a quirk in the law that existed at that time. I was too tired to be nervous, as I had been up two or three nights straight, getting ready.
The ruling was handed down on a party-line basis: All of the Republican judges voted to impose the Republican plan, and all the Democratic judges voted to uphold Mayor Peterson’s veto of that redistricting plan. This caused the members of the Supreme Court a certain degree of consternation. They didn’t like to see that sort of political decision-making. The Supreme Court ended up reversing 5-0, and in the process drew new maps—which stood up for the next several years.
Then there was the challenge to the Indiana voter ID law that passed in 2005. We filed it in federal court as a constitutional challenge under the 14th Amendment, arguing that the new photo ID law imposed an unreasonable and unnecessary burden on voters who didn’t already have a driver’s license or another form of state-issued ID.
We challenged it at the district court level. Judge [Sarah Evans] Barker ruled against us, and we appealed to the 7th Circuit. Fairly early in the case, a parallel suit filed by the Indiana Civil Liberties Union was consolidated with our case. We ended up arguing the case at the 7th Circuit, and Judge Posner wrote the majority opinion upholding Judge Barker’s ruling that upheld the law.
We petitioned for en banc review, and the court denied it by a vote of 7-4, again almost entirely on party line. We then decided to file for cert, and we were very pleased to learn that the U.S. Supreme Court had agreed to review the case. That case was argued in January of 2008. We lost 6-3, but it was a splintered decision; we got a very impassioned dissent by Justice Souter.
On behalf of the League of Women Voters of Indiana, I started another challenge, this one under the Indiana Constitution arguing that the voter ID requirement was a new qualification for voting. We prevailed in the Court of Appeals, but we lost at the state Supreme Court in 2010 by a vote of 4-1.
More recently, I got involved in the satellite voting issue in Marion County. I filed in May 2017 on behalf of my clients, Common Cause Indiana and the Indianapolis chapter of the NAACP.
In 2016, we had long lines at the City-County Building—which was the only location to vote early—and long lines at the polls. My clients said this was imposing an unreasonable burden on Indianapolis voters, so we filed a suit under the 14th Amendment. Earlier in 2018, Judge Barker held that the failure of the election board to approve satellite voting in the years since 2008 did in fact impose an unreasonable burden that was particularly skewed against the minority community and those who are less affluent. He ordered the election board to establish no fewer than two satellite sites.
That led to a bipartisan agreement to open six satellite sites for the November 2018 election, in addition to the City-County Building. It’s safe to say they were hugely popular: The site that I voted at, in Washington Township, processed about 12,000 voters in a period of 10 days. I believe the same experience held true in the other locations.
When I get involved in a voting-rights or election-law case, if I think there’s a public interest value to it, I will generally agree to take it pro bono. The most rewarding part is the fact that you can actually make a change in the status quo. It was quite a heartwarming experience for me to observe some 12,000 people being given an opportunity to vote early at a convenient location.