Friday, March 5, 2010

Big News on the Coffield vs. Handel Ballot Access Lawsuit!

Hey Kids,

This just in from the fine folks over at Ballot Access News! Oral arguments were heard yesterday in the Coffield vs. Handel ballot access case in the 11th Circuit Court way up in North Georgia. The case was brought by Faye Coffield after she was unable to meet Georgia's draconian petitioning requirements to run against incumbent democrat Hank Johnson in Georgia's 4th congressional district in 2008. Ms. Coffield did collect 2000 signatures but was unable to meet the 15,000 signature requirement to get on the ballot. The aruments covered a wide range of issues including the short petition time frame, notarizing each petition form and the filing fee requirement.

The Ballot Access News report is provided below:

Eleventh Circuit Holds Ballot Access Hearing on Georgia Law
March 4th, 2010
On March 4, the 11th circuit held oral arguments in Coffield v Handel, the case that challenges Georgia’s ballot access law for independent and minor party candidates for U.S. House. They are so strict, they have not been used since 1964. The plaintiff-candidate, Faye Coffield, collected 2,000 signatures to be an independent candidate in the 4th district in 2008, but the state required over 15,000 in that district. Because Coffield was not on the ballot, the voters in the 4th district saw only one name on their November 2008 ballot, the incumbent Democrat, Hank Johnson.

Judge James Edmondson seemed to feel that someone who only collects 2,000 signatures doesn’t belong on the ballot. He did not acknowledge that Democrats and Republicans don’t need any signatures. He suggested that because Coffield only collected 2,000 signatures, perhaps she is not even in a position to bring a constitutional challenge. Coffield’s attorney then said that only legislatures, and not courts, are in a position to decide what the requirement should be, and that the court’s function is simply to adjudicate whether 15,000 is too many. The attorney noted that Tennessee only requires 25 signatures, and Mississippi only requires 200. Furthermore, neither of those states requires independents to pay a filing fee, and Georgia does require a hefty filing fee as well as the petition. At that point, Judge Stanley Marcus also seemed to express the view that the number of signatures submitted by Coffield is irrelevant to the question of whether the law is unconstitutional.

Judge Edmondson seemed surprised that Tennessee’s requirement is so easy. He said, “You mean I could go to a school reunion and get enough signatures right there?” Coffield’s attorney then mentioned that no one has successfully completed the Georgia petition for U.S. House since 1964.

Judge William Barbour, a visiting U.S. District Court Judge from Mississippi, asked if the record shows how many candidates tried and failed to qualify. Coffield’s attorney said that there is no database for that. The attorney also mentioned that in Storer v Brown, the U.S. Supreme Court had said the way to judge whether a ballot access law is too difficult is to examine how many times it has been successfully used.

Judge Marcus seemed to then say that Coffield is unlikely to win the case, because the 11th circuit already upheld the Georgia law in Cartwright v Barnes, a 2002 case brought by the Libertarian Party. The attorney for Coffield said that case was different, because the Libertarians had not tried to qualify any U.S. House candidates prior to that case, and therefore did not accumulate any evidence about how the process works; and also the arguments had been based on other factors not relevant to independent candidates. Coffield’s attorney urged the judges to review the evidence. The judges acknowledged they had not read that yet, but said they would do so. Judge Marcus expressed the idea that because Georgia has no restrictions on the petitioning process, it will be difficult for Coffield to prevail. He did not seem to know at that point that Georgia is one of a minority of states that constricts the amount of time to collect the signatures (two-thirds of the states let independent candidate petitions circulate as early as the candidate wishes). Nor did he, nor any of the other judges, at that point know that Georgia is one of a minority of states that requires petitions to be notarized. Also, there was no awareness at that point that petitioning for U.S. House candidates, particularly in states with such complicated district boundaries as Georgia has, is intrinsically more difficult than petitioning for a statewide candidate. The evidence also shows that no candidate in any state, in U.S. history, has ever met a petition requirement for U.S. House that was greater than 13,000 signatures (in the case of Illinois, this statement only relates to candidates whose petitions were challenged; unchallenged candidates in Illinois can get on the ballot with even one signature).

Georgia is the only state that has not had any minor party or independent candidates for U.S. House on the general election ballot during the 00’s decade. A decision is likely in a few months.

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