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Federal judge returns ACLU lawsuit against Kobach over voter citizenship rule to state court

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TOPEKA, Kansas — A federal judge agreed Tuesday with the American Civil Liberties Union that a state court should decide a lawsuit challenging Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach's enforcement of the state's voter-citizenship rule.

The lawsuit attacks a policy Kobach said he was considering to restrict Kansans who use a national voter-registration form to casting ballots only in presidential, U.S. Senate and congressional races. The ACLU argued Kobach has no authority under Kansas law to impose the policy and it would violate voters' right to equal legal protection under the state constitution.

U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren in Wichita returned the case to Shawnee County District Court, where it initially was filed in November on behalf of two voters and the gay-rights group Equality Kansas.

Kobach had asked Melgren to hear the case because the federal judge handled a separate lawsuit filed by Kansas and Arizona against the federal government. Melgren last month ordered federal officials to help the two states enforce their laws requiring new voters to submit a birth certificate, passport or other papers documenting U.S. citizenship.

Kobach said the two cases were inevitably linked. But Melgren ruled Tuesday that the ACLU's lawsuit raised legal issues only involving Kansas law and the state constitution, making state court the proper venue.

"We felt we were careful in drafting our papers," said Doug Bonney, chief counsel for the ACLU of Kansas.

The secretary of state had said after Melgren ruled in the Kansas-Arizona lawsuit that he no longer needed to pursue a "dual" voter registration system. He said Tuesday that having the ACLU lawsuit return to state court ultimately "doesn't make any difference."

"The case is moot," he said. "I don't expect the case to proceed much farther."

The federal government and more than a dozen voting-rights groups involved in the case have asked Melgren to put his order in the Kansas-Arizona lawsuit on hold while it is appealed.

PHOTO: In this photo taken on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the architect of the state's proof-of-citizenship law for new voters, answers questions during an Associated Press interview in Topeka, Kan. A federal judge agreed Tuesday, April 8, 2014, with the American Civil Liberties Union that a state court should decide a lawsuit challenging Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach's enforcement of the state's voter-citizenship rule. (AP Photo/John Hanna)
In this photo taken on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the architect of the state's proof-of-citizenship law for new voters, answers questions during an Associated Press interview in Topeka, Kan. A federal judge agreed Tuesday, April 8, 2014, with the American Civil Liberties Union that a state court should decide a lawsuit challenging Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach's enforcement of the state's voter-citizenship rule. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

Therefore, Bonney said, the ACLU lawsuit "is still a live issue."

The Kansas proof-of-citizenship law took effect last year. Kobach argues that it combats fraud by preventing noncitizens from voting. Relatively few cases of voting or attempted voting by noncitizens have been reported in Kansas over the last decade, and critics argue that the law suppresses turnout. As of Tuesday, about 16,100 Kansas residents' registrations were on hold because they hadn't yet provided citizenship papers.

Most new voters use a state form requiring such documentation. The national form had required only that voters sign a statement saying they are citizens.

Kobach had said he didn't want to limit some voters' participation in elections but would be forced to if the federal government didn't add special instructions to the national form telling Arizona and Kansas residents to comply with the states' proof-of-citizenship laws. Last month, Melgren ordered the changes, and the federal agency involved plans to release a new registration form next week.


Online:

ACLU of Kansas: https://aclukansas.org/

Kansas secretary of state: http://www.kssos.org


Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna

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