Federal Court Rules Minor Political Parties May Fight Law that makes them Pay Legal Costs of Major Party Lawsuits against Them

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A federal appeals court has decided that third-party candidates have the right to fight Pennsylvania’s law that requires they pay for legal costs stemming from Republican and Democratic lawsuits challenging their ballot status.


For more than 70 years, state law has allowed major parties to intimidate other parties by suing them, claiming their qualifying signatures are invalid. Furthermore, the third parties are liable for legal costs of defending their petitions. That has caused third-party politicians to pull out of races at the first sign of litigation from Pennsylvania’s Democratic and Republican parties.


But the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled (pdf) that the Green Party and others like it don’t necessarily have to foot the bill the next time the “big boys” threaten a lawsuit.


“It would be a sad irony indeed if the state that prides itself on being the cradle of American liberty had unlawfully restrictive ballot access laws,” Justice Kent Jordan wrote for the majority.


Members of the Constitution Party, the Green Party and the Libertarian Party filed the legal challenge to Pennsylvania’s 1937 election law, which has left these smaller parties struggling to pay for attorneys’ fees when sued. Their suit was dismissed at the trial level for lack of proper standing, but the decision last week restores the plaintiff’s right to challenge the law.


The costs have proven a drain on some candidates, like Ralph Nader, who was ordered to pay $81,000 following a successful lawsuit against his signature-gathering efforts.

At least two third-party candidates for office, Ken Krawchuk of the Libertarian Party and Christina Valente of the Green Party, have said they pulled out of their respective races as soon as Democrats and Republicans went to court over their signatures from voters.


“What is not open to debate on the record before us, viewed in the plaintiff-friendly light that it must be, is that the award of costs in past cases has had a chilling effect on protected First Amendment activity. Political actors have used the recent precedents from Pennsylvania courts as a cudgel against non-major parties and their candidates.” Jordan wrote.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Hardship for Minor Parties in PA Struck Down (by Nick Divito, Courthouse News Service)

Constitution Party of Pennsylvania v. Carol Aichele (Third Circuit Court of Appeals) (pdf)

Constitution Party, et al v. Carol Aichele (FindACase.com)

Judge Rules California Unfairly Limited Third Parties Access to Ballot (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)


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