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Fusaro v. Cogan

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

July 12, 2019

DENNIS FUSARO, Plaintiff-Appellant,
MEMBER MICHAEL R. COGAN, Maryland State Board of Elections; MEMBER EMMET C. DAVITT, Maryland State Board of Elections; MEMBER PATRICK J. HOGAN, Maryland State Board of Elections; MEMBER KELLEY A. HOWELLS, Maryland State Board of Elections; MEMBER GLORIA LAWLAH, Maryland State Board of Elections; MEMBER DAVID J. MCMANUS, JR., Maryland State Board of Elections, Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued: March 20, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, at Baltimore. Ellen L. Hollander, District Judge. (1:17-cv-03582-ELH)


          Stephen Ralph Klein, PILLAR OF LAW INSTITUTE, Washington, D.C., for Appellant.

          Andrea William Trento, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF MARYLAND, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellees.

         ON BRIEF:

          Brian E. Frosh, Attorney General, John R. Grimm, Assistant Attorney General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF MARYLAND, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellees.

          Before GREGORY, Chief Judge, and KING and FLOYD, Circuit Judges.


         Plaintiff Dennis Fusaro, a Virginia resident, challenges § 3-506 of Maryland's Election Law, which regulates access to Maryland's list of registered voters (the "List"). Section 3-506 provides, inter alia, that the State Board of Elections shall provide copies of the List only to registered Maryland voters, and confines use of the List to purposes related to the electoral process. After Fusaro was denied a copy of the List because he was not a registered Maryland voter, he sued the defendant state officials in the District of Maryland, alleging that § 3-506 violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment and that the provision's reference to the "electoral process" is unconstitutionally vague. Fusaro sought a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of § 3-506 as to its registered voter requirement and its restrictions on use of the List. The district court dismissed Fusaro's complaint and denied injunctive relief on the ground that Fusaro had no First Amendment right to access the List. As explained below, we are satisfied that, with respect to his free speech challenge, Fusaro has stated a claim under the First Amendment. We therefore vacate and remand for further proceedings.


         A. Plaintiff Dennis Fusaro is a resident of and registered voter in Stephens City, Virginia. Fusaro has worked for a number of regional and national political campaigns, and intends to "continue his involvement in elections and political advocacy," including in Maryland. See Fusaro v. Davitt, No. 1:17-cv-03582 at ¶¶ 16-17 (D. Md. Dec. 4, 2017), ECF No. 1 (the "Complaint"). In 2014, Fusaro consulted for a successful campaign for a County Council seat in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. In 2016, Fusaro was charged by the state prosecutor with violating criminal provisions of Maryland's Election Law in connection with his work in the 2014 campaign. Id. ¶ 1 (citing State v. Fusaro, D-07-CR-16-00734 (D. Ct. Anne Arundel Co.)); see also Fusaro v. Davitt, No. 1:17-cv-03582 (D. Md. Dec. 4, 2017), ECF No. 20-2 (criminal information filed in Fusaro's prosecution).[1]

         In February 2017, Fusaro was convicted of the alleged Election Law violations after a bench trial in Maryland state court. In August 2017, however, Fusaro obtained a new trial before a jury and was acquitted. Following those events, Fusaro sought to express his displeasure with the state prosecutor by "shar[ing] his story with Maryland citizens" and urging them to seek the prosecutor's resignation. See Complaint ¶ 2. Fusaro planned to achieve his goal - that is, the prosecutor's resignation - by mailing copies of a letter criticizing the prosecutor to registered Maryland voters.

         The object of Fusaro's displeasure was defendant Emmett C. Davitt, the Maryland State Prosecutor at all relevant times.[2] The State Prosecutor possesses statutory authority to investigate and prosecute violations of Maryland law. See Md. Code Crim. P. §§ 14-107(a), 14-109(a). The State Prosecutor is appointed by the Governor of Maryland, with the advice and consent of the Maryland Senate. Id. § 14-102(c)(1). It is not an elected office.

         To facilitate his letter campaign against Davitt, Fusaro sought a copy of Maryland's list of registered voters. The List is maintained by the Maryland State Board of Elections (the "State Board"). See State Board, Voter Registration Statistics, According to the State Board, the List contains the names, addresses, party affiliation, and other personal data of the nearly four million voters registered in Maryland. See Complaint ¶¶ 3-4; see also State Board, Eligible Active Voters on the Precinct Register - By County (Oct. 20, 2018), _County.pdf; State Board, Application for Voter Registration Data,[3] Fusaro planned to use the List to circulate his letter criticizing Davitt and urge Maryland voters to seek his resignation, notwithstanding that Davitt holds an appointed (rather than elected) office.

         Pursuing his plan, Fusaro applied for a copy of the List from the State Board in August 2017. The Board promptly rejected Fusaro's application because he did not satisfy the statutory requirements to obtain a copy of the List. The statutory provisions concerning the maintenance and distribution of the List are codified in Subtitle 5 of Title 3 of Maryland's Election Law. Section 3-506 governs the dissemination of copies of the List and provides as follows:

(a) (1) A copy of a list of registered voters shall be provided to a Maryland registered voter on receipt of:
(i) a written application; and
(ii) a statement, signed under oath, that the list is not intended to be used for:
1. commercial solicitation; or
2. any other purpose not related to the electoral process. [ . . . ]
(c) A person who knowingly allows a list of registered voters, under the person's control, to be used for any purpose not related to the electoral process is guilty of a misdemeanor and, on conviction, is subject to the penalties under Title 16 [of the Election Law].

See Md. Code Election Law, § 3-506(a), (c). Additionally - and relevant here - § 3-505 of the Election Law makes the voter registration records "open to public inspection" at local offices of the State Board. Id. § 3-505(b)(1). Those records may also be removed from the local State Board office "on order of a court," or "for temporary removal solely for purposes of data processing." Id. § 3-505(b)(2)(ii).

         The State Board's rejection of Fusaro's application for the List complied with § 3-506. Fusaro's application included his home address in Virginia. Thus, as the Board explained in its subsequent correspondence with Fusaro, it rejected his application because, under § 3-506, "you must be a Maryland resident and registered voter to request a copy of the voter registration list." See Complaint, Ex. D. Confirming the State Board's written explanation, Fusaro's rejected application contains a notation from the Board indicating that the rejection was based on the fact that Fusaro was not a registered Maryland voter. Fusaro does not allege or identify any other reason for the Board's rejection of his application. Notably, the Complaint does not indicate that Fusaro has ever sought to obtain Maryland voter registration records from a local office of the State Board. Nor does Fusaro allege that he intends to seek Maryland residency and register as a Maryland voter. Fusaro acknowledges that, pursuant to Maryland law, he is not entitled to register to vote in Maryland as long as he remains a resident of Virginia. Id. ¶ 4 (citing Md. Code Election Law § 3-102(a)(1)(iii)).


         Fusaro sued Davitt and various members of the State Board in the District of Maryland on December 4, 2017. Fusaro's Complaint alleges two challenges against § 3-506. The Complaint first alleges that providing copies of the List only to registered Maryland voters contravenes the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment because it favors "some political speakers" over others, namely, anyone not registered to vote in Maryland (Count I). See Complaint ¶ 30. Second, the Complaint alleges that the prohibition against using the List for any purpose "not related to the electoral process" restricts speech based on content and is unconstitutionally vague, in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments (Count II). The Complaint presents each count as both facial and as-applied challenges, and it seeks declaratory and injunctive relief. As attachments to the Complaint, Fusaro included his proposed letter urging Maryland voters to seek Davitt's resignation; his rejected application for the List; and his correspondence with the Board regarding that rejection.

         Shortly thereafter, on December 15, 2017, Fusaro requested a preliminary injunction from the district court. Specifically, Fusaro sought to bar enforcement of the portions of § 3-506 that limit access to the List to registered Maryland voters only, and that prohibit using the List for purposes unrelated to the electoral process. In response, the defendants filed a consolidated memorandum on January 26, 2018, which included a motion to dismiss the Complaint and their opposition to Fusaro's request for a preliminary injunction.

         On September 4, 2018, the district court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss and denied Fusaro's request for a preliminary injunction. See Fusaro v. Davitt, No. 1:17-cv-03582 (D. Md. Sept. 4, 2018), ECF No. 26 (the "Opinion"). The Opinion rejected Fusaro's challenge to § 3-506 as a violation of the Free Speech Clause. Instead, the Opinion determined that § 3-506 merely regulated access to a record created and maintained by the government of Maryland. Relying primarily on the Supreme Court's decisions in Houchins v. KQED, Inc., 438 U.S. 1 (1978), and Los Angeles Police Department v. United Reporting Publishing Corporation, 528 U.S. 32 (1999), the Opinion ruled that Fusaro had no First Amendment right of access to such government information. See Opinion 25-26. Because both counts of the Complaint were predicated on the proposition that Fusaro had a First Amendment right to the List, the Opinion dismissed the Complaint in its entirety and denied injunctive relief. Fusaro has timely appealed the judgment and we possess appellate jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291.[4]


         This Court reviews de novo a dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). See Nemet Chevrolet, Ltd. v., Inc., 591 F.3d 250, 253 (4th Cir. 2009). In conducting such a review, we assume all well-pleaded facts are true and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Id. Viewing the complaint in that light, a plaintiff must plead "sufficient factual matter" to "'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). We will consider documents attached to the complaint, "as well as those attached to the motion to dismiss, so long as they are integral to the complaint and authentic." Philips v. Pitt Cty. Mem. Hosp., 572 F.3d 176, 180 (4th Cir. 2009). And we review de novo a district court's rulings on the constitutionality of statutory provisions. See, e.g., Miller v. Brown, 503 F.3d 360, 364 (4th Cir. 2007). Lastly, we review the denial of a preliminary injunction for abuse of discretion. See Dewhurst v. Century Aluminum Co., 649 F.3d 287, 290 (4th Cir. 2011). In so doing, we review factual findings for clear error and assess legal conclusions de novo. Id.


         The primary issue presented in this appeal is whether Fusaro's unsuccessful attempt to obtain a copy of the List presents a cognizable First Amendment claim. The district court determined that Fusaro's claims amounted to nothing more than an alleged First Amendment right to access a government record. The Opinion explained that, as a general matter, no such right exists - at least, not under the circumstances alleged - and the court dismissed the Complaint on that basis. Fusaro maintains, however, that § 3-506 burdens speech by limiting access to the List and the purposes for which the List may be used, in contravention of the First Amendment. We must assess whether Fusaro's alleged injury is protected by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment, and, if so, the level of scrutiny that applies to the challenged provisions of § 3-506. We will then address Fusaro's vagueness challenge, as well as his request for a preliminary injunction.


         The Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment provides that "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech." See U.S. Const. amend. I. The Free Speech Clause applies to the states by way of the Fourteenth Amendment. See Snyder v. Phelps, 580 F.3d 206, 214 n.4 (4th Cir. 2009) (citing Stromberg v. California, 283 U.S. 359, 368 (1931)). That short but forceful phrase has given rise to a complex array of legal protections for free expression, which the courts have flexibly applied in a variety of circumstances. Those precedents establish that the First Amendment protects speech along a spectrum, so that "[l]aws that impinge upon speech receive different levels of judicial scrutiny depending on the type of regulation and the justifications and purposes underlying it." See Stuart v. Camnitz, 774 F.3d 238, 244 (4th Cir. 2014).

         At one end of the applicable spectrum, "regulations that discriminate against speech based on its content are presumptively invalid" and are usually subject to strict scrutiny. See Stuart, 774 F.3d at 244 (internal quotation marks omitted). That is, such regulations must be "necessary to serve a compelling state interest" and "narrowly drawn to achieve that end." See Simon & Schuster, Inc. v. Members of N.Y. State Crime Victims Bd., 502 U.S. 105, 118 (1991). "Laws that burden political speech" are also generally subject to strict scrutiny. See Ariz. Free Enter. Club's Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett, 564 U.S. 721, 734 (2011). Further down the spectrum, "areas traditionally subject to government regulation, such as commercial speech and professional conduct, typically receive a lower level of review." See Stuart, 774 F.3d at 244 (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted). Within that spectrum, the federal courts have employed various multi-factor tests designed to achieve an "intermediate" level of review that can be sensibly applied in a range ...

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