A federal judge has struck down a Kansas voter citizenship law that Secretary of State Kris Kobach had personally defended.
Judge Julie Robinson also ordered Kobach, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, to take more hours of continuing legal education after he was found in contempt and was frequently chided during the trial over missteps.
In an 118-page ruling Monday, Robinson ordered a halt to the state’s requirement that people provide proof of citizenship in order to register to vote. The decision holds the potential to make registration easier as the August and November elections approach.
Robinson’s ruling amounted to a takedown of the law that Kobach had championed and lawmakers approved several years ago. She found that it “disproportionately impacts duly qualified registration applicants, while only nominally preventing noncitizen voter registration.”
“If eligible Kansans’ votes are not counted despite believing they are registered to vote, it erodes confidence in the electoral system,” Robinson wrote.
She ordered Kobach not to enforce the proof of citizenship law and its accompanying regulations.
Kobach's office said he will appeal the ruling. "Judge Robinson is the first judge in the country to come to the extreme conclusion that requiring a voter to prove his citizenship is unconstitutional. Her conclusion is incorrect, and it is inconsistent with precedents of the U.S. Supreme Court," his office said in a statement.
At trial, Kobach said the law was working. Since 2000, 129 non-citizens have either registered or attempted to register. Many of them were blocked from registering by the proof of citizenship law, he said.
"The 129 is just the tip of the iceberg…we know the iceberg is much larger," he said.
The ruling is the culmination of a federal lawsuit filed in 2016. At a bench trial earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union and attorney Mark Johnson represented voters who said they had been impeded from registering by the law.
“This decision is a stinging rebuke of Kris Kobach, and the centerpiece of his voter suppression efforts: a show-me-your-papers law that has disenfranchised tens of thousands of Kansans. That law was based on a xenophobic lie that noncitizens are engaged in rampant elections fraud," said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project.
Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, the vice-chairman of the Senate’s election committee, defended the proof of citizenship requirement. The Leavenworth Republican is running for Congress in the 2nd Congressional District.
“I think that it is clear that certain members of the press and the judiciary are absolutely opposed to Secretary Kobach’s attempt to defend the integrity of our elections,” Fitzgerald said.
Under the ruling, Kobach must instruct all state and county election officers that voter registration applicants do not need to provide proof of citizenship in order to register to vote. Registrants who have not provided proof of citizenship must be listed the same as all other registrants.
Robinson rejected Kobach’s argument that the law was needed to prohibit voter fraud. She said of the tens of thousands of people whose voter registrations have been canceled or suspended because of a lack of proof of citizenship, less than 1 percent have been confirmed to be non-citizens.
Instead of helping to block voter fraud, the law “acted as a deterrent to registration and voting for substantially more eligible Kansans than it has prevented ineligible voters from registering to vote,” she wrote.
The ruling was also a slap against Kobach as an attorney. Robinson wrote Kobach had a “well-documented history of avoiding this Court’s orders.” She repeatedly criticized Kobach’s conduct in court, noting that at least once he tried to introduce evidence despite Robinson having excluded it.
She also wrote that Kobach failed to disclose documents, and she faulted misleading testimony by one of his witnesses.
Kobach was previously fined $1,000 in the case and held in contempt.
“I have a very difficult understanding why someone with Kris Kobach’s educational pedigree can make such poor judgments repeatedly,” Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said after Monday’s ruling.
Rep. Jack Thimesch, R-Spivey, defended Kobach in the wake of the ruling, citing his familiarity with Kobach from his time sitting on the House elections committee. He also supports the proof of citizenship requirement.
“It needs to be there,” he said of the proof of citizenship requirement.
Robinson concluded her ruling by ordering Kobach to take six additional hours of continuing legal education in addition to any other hours required for a law license.
“The additional CLE must pertain to federal or Kansas civil rules of procedure or evidence,” Robinson wrote.