The state Supreme Judicial Court has stopped hearing arguments for new cases until September. Now the Court is starting to issue rulings on dozens of cases that went before the court and one recent ruling is having significant consequences as campaign season begins to kick into high-gear. The SJC struck down a lawsuit filed by Democratic activist groups that argued the state law requiring a person to register to vote 20 days before an election day is an unconstitutional suppression of voter's rights. The SJC ruled that the Legislature has the legal right to set-up an administrative system to process voter registration. WGBH 's Morning Edition anchor Joe Mathieu spoke with legal analyst and Northeastern Law Professor Daneil Medwed about the ruling. Medwed explains why he believes the legislature should overturn the law and also explains the legal reasoning behind another SJC decision that overturned a murder conviction.
The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: While the Supreme Judicial Court does not hold oral arguments during the summer months it does continue to issue judicial opinions on cases heard earlier in the year. Joining us to discuss some of the key SJC decisions handed down recently is Northeastern law professor and WGBH legal analyst Daniel Medwed. Let's start with a major opinion last week concerning the voter registration deadline in Massachusetts, it was a big story. What did the SJC hold in that case?
Daniel Medwed: The SJC upheld the state law that requires people to register to vote at least 20 days before an election in the face of an attack from some civil rights groups including the ACLU that claimed that this promoted voter dilution, that it suppressed the right of people to vote. The state defended this law on the grounds that it was a reasonable administrative measure that there needed to be some time to turnaround and process voter registrations.
Mathieu: What was the rationale for the court's decision on this and what does it mean going forward?
Medwed: Yeah well the rationale was quite straightforward. The SJC didn't applaud this law. It didn't bless this law. It simply said that it was a constitutional exercise of the Legislature's discretion, that it was not unreasonable. What that means going forward is that it's up to the legislature not the courts to re-evaluate this law and the SJC strongly hinted that the legislature should look at it again chiding the legislature for failing to take a second look at this law that they passed a quarter century ago back in 1993.
For what it's worth, I think that this law should be changed and will be changed and here's why. First, our state laws undermine the state's argument that this is legitimate. We allow early voting in Massachusetts 15 days before an election which means that it takes at most five days to process voter registrations. You sign up 20 days out and then you vote 15 days out. Second, and more notably, we now have the technology to have same day voter registration.
Fifteen states and the District of Columbia allow for Election Day registration. So I think this 20 Day Rule is really a vestige of a bygone era when you had a lot of handwritten registrations and it was very cumbersome to process them.
Mathieu: We're talking with legal analyst Daniel Medwed about recent judicial opinions from the SJC, the state's highest court. In addition to the voter registration case Daniel have there been any other significant opinions this month?
Medwed: Actually, last week the SJC handed down a very intriguing criminal law case. A man named Curtis Combs was charged with murdering a man named William Jones in Springfield and then depositing the body across the border in Connecticut in the town of Bloomfield. The problem was that the local prosecutors in Hamden County failed to present a lot of evidence linking the actual murder to Springfield. There was no forensic evidence, no eyewitness testimony. It was a very circumstantial case. So the SJC on appeal said that the prosecution failed to present sufficient evidence of jurisdiction to prove that Massachusetts had proper jurisdiction over this case and that meant that the SJC tossed out the conviction.
Mathieu: So what are the implications of this case in the future Daniel?
Medwed: It's a little bit unclear. On the one hand, I think this case is pretty idiosyncratic a case where the body was deposited right over the border and maybe some evidence suggesting that it occurred in Massachusetts but maybe not enough for the prosecutors to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. But on the other hand I think it sends a strong signal to prosecutors not to be sloppy to dot your I's and cross your T's in cases where jurisdiction isn't crystal clear.
Mathieu: So Daniel could Connecticut prosecutors go after Combs for the crime?
Medwed: That's a great question. Absolutely. Connecticut is a separate sovereign so there's no double jeopardy problem. But I think a good defense lawyer could argue reasonable doubt in Connecticut. I could see a defense lawyer saying Look Massachusetts prosecutors tried this case in Massachusetts suggesting that maybe there's some evidence of a Massachusetts crime. So there'd be a little cross pointing of fingers. I think between Connecticut and Massachusetts it's a yucky situation all around.
I'll admit it but it really is a victory for the rule of law. Prosecutors have to prove each and every element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt and that includes jurisdiction.
This article has been updated.