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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Ducks Another Constitutional Election Law Issue

Published on April 29, 2010, by in General.

On April 29, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a one-word “opinion” in the case known as In re: Objection to Nomination Petition of Pia Varma, 12 EAP 2010. That word is “affirmed”.

Pia Varma is the only person who tried to get on the Republican primary ballot, set for May 18, for U.S. House, First District, a district in Philadelphia. Her petition, which required 1,000 signatures of registered Republicans, was challenged because some of her signatures had been collected by registered Republicans who live outside the First District. The lower court had sustained the objection, without noting that in 2002, a U.S. District Court in the eastern district (which covers Philadelphia) had ruled it unconstitutional to require circulators to live in the same district that the candidate is running in.

As a result of the Supreme Court’s refusing to hear the candidate’s appeal, Republicans in the First District will see a primary ballot with no candidates’ names printed on the ballot. Anyone may be a write-in candidate in Pennsylvania primaries, but no one is deemed nominated unless they poll at least 1,000 write-ins.

The lower court had not dealt with the constitutional issue. When the candidate appealed, the objectors argued that she could not legitimately raise the constitutional issue in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court because she had not raised it in the lower court. Actually, when the case was in the lower court, Varma didn’t have an attorney and did not realize that she could have argued the constitutional issue herself.

The federal decision that had struck down the residency requirement for circulators is Morrill v Weaver, 224 F Supp 2d 882. Technically that decision struck down the residency requirement for petitions for independent candidates, not petitions for getting a candidate on a primary ballot. But the logic of one applies equally to the other.

9 Responses

  1. Demo Rep

    Last sentence in the posting –

    Since when do party hack courts need ANY *logic* for their party hack opinions about ANY subject ???

  2. Jim Riley

    The 2002 decision was with respect to a petition for a new party. Petitions for new parties include the candidates who will be the nominees of the party. Since you may have a combination of statewide and district candidates, each petition is restricted to being signed by voters in eligible districts (eg Voters who live in County A, Senate District B, and House District C). A voter who lives in County A and Senate District B, but not House District C, would have to sign a different petition.

    So a circulator would have to carry around several different petition sheets. If the circulators also had to match, instead of carrying 10 petitions, you would have had 10 circulators carrying one petition each. If Bill found someone sign, he would have to have Joe come over with his petition.

    In the case of petition to get on a party primary ballot, there is only one office per petition. The circulator has to be a member of the party (otherwise you would likely have Republicans circulating petitions for Green Party candidates, and Democrats circulating petitions for Libertarian Party candidates. I don’t think it is unreasonable to not let circulators from Pittsburgh circulate petitions for candidates in Philadelphia.

    So while the situations are superficially similar, they aren’t actually.

  3. Richard

    Pennsylvania doesn’t have petitions for new parties. There is simply no such procedure in Pennsylvania law. Pennsylvania is one of only eleven states with no procedure to qualify a party per se. Instead, Pennsylvania just has candidate petitions, for the general election.

    Morrill v Weaver says the state claims an interest is that “residents’ familiarity with the local population and geography makes more likely that the signatures on the nomination papers are valid.” Also, “A residency requirement further assures that the affiants will be readily available for litigation and investigation into alleged improprieties in the signature collection process.” The court rejected these state interests. But the state’s interests, as put forth by the state, apply equally whether it is a candidate petition to get someone on the primary ballot, or on the November ballot.

  4. [...] Supreme Court's reply? "Affirmed," and that's about all. According to Ballot Access News, this decision went against precedent: Pia Varma is the only person who tried to get on the Republican primary ballot, set for May 18, [...]

  5. Norman Valz

    The Supreme Court’s decision did not have to touch on the Constitutional issues due to Ms. Varma’s failure to show up to the Commonwealth Court hearing – thus allowing a Judgment by Default. The Supreme Court merely had to find that she had been properly served notice of the lower court hearing and thus did not have grounds to appeal.

  6. Jim Riley

    #3 Pennsylvania has a procedure by which candidates (plural) for a “political body” may qualify for the general election ballot. The procedure is also used by minor political parties.

    The petition form is here:

    http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/gateway/PTARGS_0_160329_768581_0_0_18/state_nomination_paper_political_body_dsbe-pb.pdf

    You will notice that the petition designates the name of the political body, provides a list of multiple candidates, and provides a vacancy committee.

    While undoubtedly, an ad hoc political body could be formed to support the candidacy of an an “independent” individual, the form is of providing an alternate to the nomination of candidates by the major parties.

    While it does not qualify the party per se, it serves as a method of qualifying the candidates of the party.

    In the particular case at issue, Morrill was the Green Party candidate for governor, other plaintiffs were Green Party candidates for Congress, another a Green Party candidate for the State House, and the other was a field director for the party.

    Morrill wanted to be able to collect signatures not only for his candidacy but for that of other party candidates. If he happened to find a voter from one of the congressional districts in question, he would have to use a petition sheet for his gubernatorial candidacy and the particular congressional candidate. But he would not have been able witness the signature because he was not a resident of the congressional district.

    Of particular interest to the court was a provision in the statute requiring circulators being “qualified electors”. The court construed that as meaning someone qualified to be (or become a voter) regardless of his registration status.

    Pennsylvania includes an annotation in its code referencing ‘Morrill v Weaver’, and it has modified its instructions and petition form for political parties to comply.

    The method of qualifying candidates for a political body presumes that internal political disputes have been resolved. The statute in Pennsylvania was interfering with statewide organizing effort of the Green Party.

    On the other hand, party primaries are designed to resolve intra-party disputes as to which candidates represent the party. Candidates in the primary have an adversarial interest. The State (supposedly) has an interest in having these disputes resolved before the general election.

    The State would logically have an interest in preventing outsiders becoming involved in the dispute (note: just because it is a foolish policy decision to use party primaries rather than Top 2 Open Primary, does not mean that the State may not construct a legal system around the party primaries).

    A State may legitimately restrict petition signers to enrolled members of a party. There is no question that it may legitimately restrict petition signers to electors in the district. That is, only those eligible to participate in the primary, may place a candidate on the ballot. And a State might also reasonably restrict circulators to persons who live in the district. If you don’t want Democrats interfering in the nominating activities of Republicans, then it might be reasonable to prevent persons from North Philly interfering with elections in South Philly.

    So you are presuming that the interest of the State in the case of internal party matters would be the same as it offered in another case that was superficially similar.

  7. Richard

    There is absolutely nothing that a Pennsylvania group can do to transform itself into a qualified party in advance of any election. By contrast, 39 states have a procedure by which a group can transform itself into a qualified party in advance of an election.

    I don’t know how to say it any plainer.

  8. Jim Riley

    #8 Morrill was the gubernatorial candidate of the Green Party. Other plaintiffs were congressional and legislative candidates of the Green Party.

    In Pennsylvania, candidates of political bodies and minor parties file joint petitions:

    http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/gateway/PTARGS_0_160329_768581_0_0_18/state_nomination_paper_political_body_dsbe-pb.pdf

    I erred when I said that the case was about qualifying a new party. Instead it was about qualifying the nominees (plural) of a political party or “political body”.

    But there is trivial difference between signing a petition so that the Green Party can have Bob as the gubernatorial candidate, Bill as a congressional candidate, and Mary as a legislative candidate; and signing a petition so the Bob could be the gubernatorial candidate, Bill the congressional candidate, and Mary the legislative candidate representing the Green Party.

    Morrill could not witness the signature on a petition for his candidacy for governor AND a congressional candidate of his party if he did not live in the congressional district. He wasn’t trying to be the candidate of his party, so much as he was trying to qualify an entire slate of candidates for his party.

    There is a difference when the petition is for an individual candidate running for nomination of her party. The State may restrict signatures and signature gatherers to adherents of the party. They can certainly restrict signatures to the district. And I don’t see why they can’t restrict signature gatherers to residents of the district.

    Outsiders, whether from outside the party or outside the district do not have the right to vote in a partisan primary. Why should they be able to interfere with the decision made by district partisans?

    The Secretary of the Commonwealth has modified the petition forms and instructions that were at issue in Morrill v Weaver. They have not done so for party primary candidates. Perhaps if there were a court case, the court might make a similar decision. I doubt that the State would make the identical arguments. They would certainly frame it in terms of the actual facts of the case.

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