Quick look at Clingman v. Beaver

Monday, May 23, 2005

Case name: Clingman v. Beaver, 04-37.

Background: The Libertarian Party of Oklahoma was blocked when it tried to create an open primary to choose its candidates — a primary in which not only Libertarians but also members of other parties could vote. Oklahoma, like roughly half the states, has a more closed primary law; only a party’s own members, plus registered independents, may vote in that party’s primary. The Libertarians claimed a First Amendment right to invite anyone they wanted to help choose their candidates. But the state argued that allowing wide-open primaries could destabilize both parties and elections.

Ruling: Voting 6-3, the Court sided with Oklahoma, holding that a state has the right to restrict voter participation in a party’s primaries to members of that party.

Verbatim: Justice Thomas, writing for the Court: “This case presents a question that Tashjian left open: whether a State may prevent a political party from invit¬ing registered voters of other parties to vote in its primary. … As Tashjian acknowledged, opening a party’s primary 'to all voters, including members of other parties, . . . raise[s] a different combination of considera¬tions.' … We are persuaded that any burden Oklahoma’s semiclosed primary imposes is minor and justified by legitimate state interests.”

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing in dissent: “The Court’s decision today diminishes the value of two important rights protected by the First Amendment: the individual citizen’s right to vote for the candidate of her choice and a political party’s right to define its own mis¬sion.”

Lineup: Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the opinion for the Court, except as to Part II-A. Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy joined Thomas' opinion in full. Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Stephen Breyer joined Thomas' opinion except as to Part II-A. O'Connor filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which Breyer joined, except as to Part III. Justice John Paul Stevens filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined and in which Justice David Souter joined as to Parts I, II, and III.

First Amendment impact: The majority gave higher priority to Oklahoma's power to regulate elections than to the First Amendment associational rights of the state Libertarian Party. In upholding Oklahoma’s semi-closed primary election law, the Court by implication backed similar primary systems in 23 other states. But statements by O’Connor coupled with the views of the three dissenters appear to give some hope to minor parties that want to make a comprehensive challenge to state election laws.