WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court sternly warned states yesterday not to put up election barriers that make it hard for small splinter parties to get started by running candidates for local offices.
The 7-1 ruling nullified an Illinois law that required a new, Chicago-area political party, comprising mainly black candidates and their black voting supporters, to gather far more voter signatures to get on a local ballot than the number needed for statewide ballots.
Justice David H. Souter's opinion for the majority said that states must meet a heavy burden when they seek to prevent "like-minded voters" from gathering in new parties "in pursuit of common political ends."
The ruling struck down a law that Illinois had adopted after the Supreme Court in 1979 had voided a law that made it difficult for the Socialist Workers Party to get on local election ballots. Under the new law, the Harold Washington Party -- a splinter group named after the late black mayor of Chicago -- was denied the right to get candidates for Cook County offices on the ballot, because it did not get 25,000 voter signatures in each district in which it sought to run candidates.
If the party had wanted to run statewide candidates, it would have had to get only 25,000 signatures from all across the state. Thus, the law's effect was to make it more difficult for the Washington Party to mount campaigns in Cook County than statewide.
Because the party was given temporary permission to run its candidates in Cook County elections in 1990, while the case moved forward, it did get on the ballot, and it won enough votes to be recognized officially as a new party -- if its temporary victory was translated into a permanent one by the Supreme Court. The ruling yesterday went far toward doing just that, but fell short because the justices sent the case back to state court to explore a different issue on access to the ballot.
Justice Antonin Scalia was the lone dissenter. The court's newest justice, Clarence Thomas, took no part in the ruling, since it arose before he joined the bench.
Justice Thomas did write his first ruling for the court yesterday, in a technical case involving the kinds of damage verdicts that can be won against federal government agencies.
It was a unanimous ruling giving those who sue the federal government a chance to win larger damage verdicts for harm caused by federal officials or employees.
The Thomas opinion rejected arguments made by the Bush administration.