Category Archives: elections

Meyer v. Grant

486 U. S. 414

June 6, 1988

Colorado has a ballot initiative process where citizens can petition and put a question up for vote. But Colorado law banned the payment of those who collect signatures for such a petition. Signature collectors charged that this violated the First Amendment, by unduly burdening the ability of citizens to get initiatives on the ballot.

The Supreme Court unanimously found a First Amendment violation. Stevens said that political questions like those decided by initiative vote deserved the highest level of Constitutional protection, and that Colorado’s law substantially limited the reach of communication between citizens. To support the law, the state argued that it was required to ensure genuine grass roots support for the initiative, and to ensure that signature collectors did not resort to fraud. Stevens found both arguments weak and doubtful when compared to the First Amendment concerns.

Colorado also urged that it were not Constitutionally required to provide an initiative process at all, and thus the state remained free to impose any restrictions whatsoever. Stevens responded that once a state provides a new political process, it cannot shield the First Amendment from operating in that new process. Even though the Court ruled unanimously, I’m not sure they adequately answered this last argument, and I might have dissented.

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Pleasant Grove v. United States

479 U. S. 462

January 21, 1987

The Voting Rights Act (VRA) required the Justice Department to approve any action taken by an Alabama community that affected voting rights. Precedent made clear that the addition of new land to the city limits, whether inhabited or uninhabited, constituted such an action, because of the potential for new voters to be added to rolls. The VRA also required Alabama communities to bear the burden of proof in showing that land acquisition did not have the purpose or effect of abridging voting rights on the basis of race.

Pleasant Grove, Alabama somehow survived into the 1980s without a single nonwhite registered voter. The Justice Department refused to preclear two additions to the city limits. One was uninhabited, and the second contained just one white family. During the same time, the city rebuffed an attempt by a nearby black community to gain admittance to the city limits, based on some allegedly dubious reasoning. In a 6-3 decision, Justice White upheld the Justice Department’s refusal to approve of Pleasant Grove’s proposed additions. Pleasant Grove argued that none of its actions would actually dilute the black vote, since none existed. White rejected this reasoning, finding that the acquisitions could have the effect of diluting future black voting power.

Powell dissented, and was joined by Rehnquist and O’Connor. He found White’s future vote dilution theory unsupported by the Court’s precedent. Even accepting it, Powell said that the addition of a single white family’s plot of land would not noticeably dilute black voting power. With respect to the uninhabited plot of land, Powell argued that it might actually increase black voting power, since blacks could move into it. Finally, he felt the city made a plausible non-racial case for its decision not to annex the nearby black community.

Personally, I think the future dilution theory is an acceptable interpretation of the VRA. Whether the two annexations really amounted to a dilution is a much closer question for me. Because the burden of proof is on the city rather than the Justice Department, I lean toward yes, but Powell made a rather good argument for answering no.

Federal Election Comm’n v. Massachusetts Citizens for Life, Inc.

479 U. S. 238

December 15, 1986

Federal law made it illegal for any corporation to make any expenditures on political elections, unless they set up a special political committee with segregated financing. Massachusetts Citizens for Life (MCFL) was a pro-life group that incorporated itself as a non-profit to do its work. In 1978, MCFL published a voter guide that listed the positions of the candidates in the upcoming election on the abortion issue. The FEC brought action against MCFL for distributing this guide, and MCFL contested the application of the federal campaigning law in court.

The Court ruled 5-4 that the law was unconstitutional as applied to MCFL, because it unreasonably restricted the group’s right to free speech. Brennan wrote for the majority. First, he rejected arguments that publication of the guide was not an “expenditure” within the law’s meaning, and that the guide was not intended as a call to vote for certain candidates. Even the four dissenters agreed with those conclusions. Nonetheless, Brennan thought that the law swept too broadly with respect to MCFL, and thus ruled against the FEC.

He explained that campaign finance restrictions on corporations were intended to keep corporations from using massive company profits to disproportionately impact the political process, and also intended to prevent the use of a customer’s money on a cause he might disagree with. Because MCFL was a non-profit, and actually dedicated to the pro-life cause, the goals behind the law did not apply. Brennan also showed that setting up the special political committee provided for in the law would be extremely burdensome for MCFL, and might operate in a chilling fashion on their speech rights.

Brennan’s discussion on that last point was not joined by O’Connor, who wrote a concurring opinion explaining why. Reading it though, I still can’t figure out where it is that they actually disagree. Rehnquist wrote a dissent, and he was joined by White, Blackmun, and Stevens. Its basic gist was that Congress very clearly intended its law to apply to all corporations, and that prior Court decisions had usually not exempted organizations from campaign finance restrictions just because a particular application bore little relation to the law’s underlying goals. White, a staunch adherent to precedent, joined Rehnquist’s dissent even while noting that he had originally disagreed with many of those previous rulings.

This case feels like something out of a bizarre parallel universe. A hyper-liberal Justice writing a majority opinion against a campaign finance law? When the target of the law’s application was a pro-life organization!?? I’m starting to think that some of today’s great political fault lines weren’t quite so set in stone back then. As for the decision itself, I think Brennan got it right; the First Amendment values at stake do trump precedent and Congressional desire for uniformity. Also, maybe I’m just paranoid, but I can’t help but wonder if the FEC deliberately decided to target MCFL because of its pro-life views. It certainly wouldn’t have been the first or last time that a government agency bullied the right to life movement.

Tashjian v. Republican Party of Conn.

479 U. S. 208

December 10, 1986

Connecticut had a law that party primary elections must be closed to all voters except party members. The Republican party did not like this, and wanted independents to have the ability to vote in Republican primaries as well. The party passed a resolution opening up the franchise in primaries for federal, and some state elections, and sued to get Connecticut’s law declared unconstitutional under First Amendment association rights.

In a 5-4 decision, Justice Marshall sided with the Republican Party. Marshall believed that a party had the right to determine for itself the body of voters that would choose its candidates, and found that none of Connecticut’s justifications for mandating closed primaries was especially important or impressive. But a problem still remained – the Republican Party did not want independents participating in primaries for the state legislature. The proposed rules of the Republicans arguably violated the elector qualifications clause of the Constitution, which says that the qualifications to be voters for the national legislature should be the same as the qualifications to be voters for the state legislature.

Marshall said that the elector qualifications clause only meant that the qualifications to vote for state legislature must be the bare minimum, and that states were free to enlarge the privilege of voting for national elections. In other words, the Constitution only meant that anyone who could vote in a state election must be able to vote in a national election. In support of this contention, Marshall looked at records of the Constitutional convention, and at the precedent Oregon v. Mitchell.

Scalia dissented, and he was joined by Rehnquist and O’Connor. He felt that the party’s association interests were not really that important, since it was trying to be associated with those who had deliberately chosen not to be associated with it. Thus, he felt the state law should be undisturbed. Stevens filed a dissent that Scalia joined. Stevens took issue with the elector qualifications clause holding. He argued that the qualifications must be absolutely identical for state and national legislative elections, and thus the Republican Party’s rules were unconstitutional. Looking at the aforementioned precedent and drafting history of the clause, he convincingly demolished Marshall’s reasoning. Seeing Stevens use originalism is a surreal experience, but he does it well.

The case has some interesting ironies. For one thing, Republicans last won a Senate election in Connecticut in 1982 – two years before the party demanded open primaries. Second, it’s interesting that all four dissenters were Republicans, and that most of the majority was Democrats. Finally, it’s always an irony when Stevens manages to file the best argued opinion.

Munro v. Socialist Workers Party

479 U. S. 189

December 10, 1986

Ballot access in Washington state operated in the following fashion: minor parties would nominate a candidate by convention. Those candidates would be placed on a primary ballot along with all the Republican and Democratic candidates (Washington had a single primary, rather than separate party primaries). If a minor party candidate got at least 1% of the overall vote, it qualified for the ballot in the general election. In a primary for a 1983 special Senate election, the candidate of the Socialist Workers party fell short of the 1% threshold. The party sued, claiming a First Amendment right to be listed on the general election ballot.

Writing for a 7-2 majority, Justice White smacked the Socialist Workers down. It was established precedent that a state could require minor parties to show a “modicum of support” before obtaining a right to appear on a general election ballot. Washington’s primary scheme gave minor parties every opportunity to show such a modicum of support, and therefore the ballot access law was not unconstitutional. White also rejected the claim that a state needed to specifically prove a need for curbing the ballot access of minor parties.

Marshall dissented, and he was joined by (surprise, surprise!) Brennan. It was mostly a policy based dissent. Minor parties, he said, play an important role in elections by raising issues that would otherwise be ignored, and giving disaffected voters an outlet. He also noted that in practice, minor parties almost never survived the primary stage. Finally, Marshall thought that the state’s interest in preventing general election ballot overcrowding was facetious in light of how crowded the primary election ballot was.

I have to go with White on this one. States should have the right to draw the line somewhere, and 1% in a primary election sounds eminently reasonable to me. One final note – in the Senate election that gave rise to Munro, ultimate winner Dan Evans was a Republican of all things! It was a very different political era indeed.