On July 24, U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Stengel issued a 41-page opinion in Constitution Party of Pennsylvania v Cortes, e.d., 12-cv-2726. He determined that Pennsylvania’s system of charging huge court costs against petitioning candidates and groups violates the U.S. Constitution, as applied to the minor parties who filed the lawsuit. The three parties who filed the lawsuit are the Constitution, Green and Libertarian Parties. UPDATE: see this newspaper story.
The decision rests on the fact that it has become routine in Pennsylvania for major party figures to challenge, or to threaten to challenge, statewide minor party petitions. The decision goes through the sad history. The idea of charging up to $100,000 in court costs originated in Pennsylvania in 2004, when Ralph Nader was subject to costs of $81,102 after his petition was rejected. The opinion then describes the 2006 election, when Green Party U.S. Senate nominee Carl Romanelli was ordered to pay $80,407, after the other Green Party statewide nominees had withdrawn for fear of costs. Then the decision describes 2008, when the Green and Constitution Parties did not even try to petition in Pennsylvania. Then the decision discusses 2010, when the Libertarian and Green Parties both petitioned, but after both were threatened, they withdrew their petitions.
Then the decision discusses 2012, when the Libertarian Party was threatened again, but it defended its petition and that petition was found valid. The decision talks about the burden on the Libertarians, who had to find 70 volunteers to sit all day during the validation process. The decision also notes that the Constitution Party withdrew its petition. The Green Party did petition and it wasn’t challenged, perhaps because it only fielded candidates for President but none of the other statewide offices. Finally, the decision mentions 2014, when no statewide minor party submitted any petitions.
Although the decision only applies to the three plaintiffs, the basis for the decision would apply to any statewide minor party or independent candidate, because, as the decision notes, minor party and independent candidates for statewide office need so many signatures (typically 25,000), that their costs when petitions are rejected are very large. The decision does not apply yet to major party candidates petitioning to get on the ballot in the primary because they never need more than 2,000 signatures. Also the decision notes that no major party person seeking to get on a primary for statewide office has ever been subject to court costs.
This is a major victory for ballot access. The case was won by Oliver Hall, who has been Ralph Nader’s ballot access attorney for many years.