N.Y. appeals court strikes law limiting political parties’ speech

Saturday, July 22, 2006

ALBANY, N.Y. — An election law that prohibited a political party from attacking or supporting candidates in another party’s primary was ruled unconstitutional this week by a midlevel state appeals court.

The ruling in the Matter of Avella v. Batt will allow political parties to try to influence another party’s primary election, the judges said, citing freedom of speech protections.

In practice, major parties have preferred to let opposition party candidates attack each other and save campaign dollars for the weeks running up to the general election.

A state judge had ruled in 2004 that the Working Families Party, an up-and-coming player on the state political scene, improperly intruded on the Democratic primary for Albany County district attorney by backing one of the candidates in the race.

The candidate supported by the Working Family Party, David Soares, easily defeated incumbent Paul Clyne in the primary.

Republicans, Clyne supporters and others challenged the Working Family Party’s support for Soares, arguing that under state election law a party must stay out of other parties’ primaries.

State Supreme Court Justice Bernard Malone Jr. agreed. He said four pro-Soares mailings funded by the Working Families Party and the party’s spending of $121,776 in the Democratic primary campaign clearly indicated it was trying to influence the Democratic race.

On July 20, the Appellate Division of the state Supreme Court reversed Malone’s decision, ruling that the state law was a violation of the First Amendment and could not “withstand constitutional scrutiny.”

“We agree with the WFP … (that the law), as applied here, unconstitutionally burdens its First Amendment rights of political expression and association,” the appeals court said.

“It is a great victory for the free speech of citizens and the free speech of political parties,” said Richard Brodsky, a Democratic Assemblyman who argued on behalf of the WFP. “Elections matter, and the ability to speak in support of a candidate matters.”

Lee Daghlian, a spokesman for the state Board of Elections, which defended the law in court, did not have an immediate comment on the ruling.

Daghlian said he did not know if the board would appeal the decision to the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.

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