The Lawletter Vol 41, No 3
John Stone, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group
A federal civil rights statute, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, is most closely associated with providing a remedy for individuals whose federal constitutional rights have been violated by persons acting under color of state law. However, although they comprise a relatively small subset of § 1983 cases, claims under § 1983 can, under certain circumstances, be based upon violations of federal rights derived from federal statutes, not from the U.S. Constitution.
In a recent example of such a claim, a voter in Puerto Rico brought an action challenging a Puerto Rico statute that struck her and more than 300,000 other voters from a voter-registration roll because they did not vote in the prior general election. The U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico issued injunctive and declaratory relief barring the Puerto Rico State Elections Commission ("SEC") from removing otherwise eligible voters from an active election registry unless the requirements of the federal Help America Vote Act ("HAVA") were met. Colón-Marrero v. Conty-Perez, No. CIV. 12-1749CCC, 2015 WL 3508142 (D.P.R. signed June 4, 2015). The President of the SEC appealed, and the First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court. Colón-Marrero v. Velez, No. 15-1356, 2016 WL 386428 (1st Cir. Feb. 1, 2016). The court in Colón-Marrero held first that a provision of the Puerto Rico statute that had struck the plaintiff and more than 300,000 voters from the voter-registration roll because they did not vote in one prior election was superseded by a provision of HAVA. The federal law provides computerized statewide voter registration list requirements and precludes Puerto Rico from deactivating voters unless they have not responded to a notice seeking to confirm eligible residency and they did not vote in two consecutive general elections for federal office; the HAVA provision states that no registrant may be removed solely by reason of a failure to vote.
As for the plaintiff's use of § 1983 as a remedy, if a plaintiff satisfies the threshold inquiry and demonstrates that Congress intended to confer an individual right, the right is presumptively enforceable by § 1983. To rebut that presumption, the defendant must show that Congress shut the door to private enforcement, either expressly in the statute creating the right or impliedly by creating a comprehensive enforcement scheme that is incompatible with individual enforcement under § 1983. Blessing v. Freestone, 520 U.S. 329, 341 (1997). When it applied this analysis to the claim before it, the First Circuit found that the plaintiff voter and others like her could pursue a claim under § 1983.
The key provision in HAVA did create an individual private right subject to enforcement through a § 1983 claim; it specified a discrete class of beneficiaries, that is, registrants like the plaintiff, and described specific procedures for removing individual registrants from a state's active voter rolls. In addition, HAVA was enacted pursuant to Congress's authority under the Elections Clause of the Constitution, and enforcing a right of retention on a state's active voter registry would impose no strain on judicial competence. The right was concrete and well defined, and the HAVA provision's requirements unambiguously imposed binding obligations. As for the final step in the analysis, an individual remedy like that sought by the plaintiff in Colón-Marrero was not incompatible with the enforcement mechanisms of HAVA.
The outcome in Colón-Marrero is in keeping with the Supreme Court's admonition against "lightly conclud[ing] that Congress intended to preclude reliance on § 1983," Smith v. Robinson, 468 U.S. 992, 1012 (1984), and its statement that the availability of a private remedy through an administrative mechanism is not necessarily enough to show such intent, see, e.g., Golden State Transit Corp. v. City of Los Angeles, 493 U.S. 103, 106 (1989). Rather, to confine individuals to a statutory remedy, the legislation must reveal Congress's purpose to exclude independent relief in federal court pursuant to § 1983. See, e.g., Wilder v. Va. Hosp. Ass'n, 496 U.S. 498, 523 (1990) (finding no "indication that Congress specifically intended that [the statute's] administrative procedure replace private remedies available under § 1983"). With regard to the claim in Colón-Marrero, nowhere in HAVA was there an indication that Congress meant to foreclose a remedy under § 1983.