PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — Oral argument in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals was heard Tuesday morning in the case, Balsam, et al. v. Guadagno (New Jersey Secretary of State). The Independent Voter Project represented the plaintiffs in the suit, which was originally filed in the district court in Newark, New Jersey on March 5, 2014.
The suit challenges the constitutionality of New Jersey’s election system, which gives political parties and their members exclusive access to an integral stage of the public election process: the closed primary.
Following oral arguments, Chad Peace, representing the plaintiffs and the Independent Voter Project, said, “Regardless of the outcome, we are very pleased that the appeals court is considering this case with the thoughtful seriousness and genuine interest that it deserves.”
The three-judge panel was led by Senior Judge Franklin Stuart Van Antwerpen. Donna Kelly represented the state of New Jersey. Oral arguments were scheduled for 15 minutes for both plaintiff and defendant.
Opening for the plaintiffs, attorney Sam Gregory, citing California Democratic Party v. Jones, asserted that courts have repeatedly upheld the notion that states cannot force parties and nonmember voters to affiliate with each other. Citing Gray v. Sanders, Gregory further argued that the Supreme Court has made it clear that the fundamental concept of equal representation and “one person, one vote” applies to all elections — including primary elections.
In the plaintiffs’ closing rebuttal arguments, Peace asked the judges to imagine substituting religious faiths for political parties in a similar circumstance.
“If the state were to suggest that in order to practice religion a person has to join one of two churches, we would find this proposition absurd,” he argued. “Yet, the state in this case has sanctioned, administered, and funded an election system that forces individual voters to belong to one of two private political parties to exercise full benefit of their right to vote – whether they want to join a party or not.“
If the state were to suggest that in order to practice religion a person has to join one of two churches, we would find this proposition absurd.Chad Peace, attorney for Appellants
A federal district court judge, Stanley Chesler, dismissed the plaintiffs’ entire case in August, with prejudice, on summary judgment. Chesler’s opinion cited precedent concerning an independent voter’s right to participate in Republican and Democratic primaries and suggested that, among other things, “a voter who feels disenfranchised … should simply join [a] party.”
However, the plaintiffs have said in numerous briefs and motions that they never asked the court to rule on the right of private political parties to conduct their own candidate selection proceedings without being forced to allow nonmembers to participate. The plaintiffs argue that their suit actually supports this constitutional right.
“Appellants have proceeded from the premise that the State cannot fund, administer, and sanction an integral stage of its election process that excludes a near majority of all registered voters,” the plaintiffs argue in their appeal, which was filed in November.
The suit argues that New Jersey’s publicly-funded system is conducted for the private benefit of the Republican and Democratic parties to the exclusion of the 47 percent of New Jersey voters who have chosen not to join a party. Specifically, the Independent Voter Project asserts two main grievances under federal law:
1. New Jersey’s closed primary system violates a voter’s First Amendment right of non-association as voters are required to join a political party to participate in the taxpayer-funded primary process; and
2. New Jersey’s closed primary system violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause as the primary system gives political parties and their members superior access to the election franchise, which has the effect of diluting the influence of voters who choose not to join the Republican or Democratic parties.
“At its core, this suit is about constitutional rights, not political remedies,” said Jim Jonas, spokesman for the Independent Voter Project.
“We’re asking the court the simple question: for whose benefit are elections held? Should elections be paid for, administered and conducted by the state for the benefit of private political parties? Or should elections be about protecting and defending the rights of each individual voter – regardless of their affiliation or non affiliation – to have an equal and meaningful vote in the political process?”
The original complaint, amicus briefs, and more information about the lawsuit can be found online here. Full audio of the oral argument can be accessed here. A transcript will be posted as soon as it becomes available.