Court reverses ruling on NAACP

July 27, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

The state's highest court ruled yesterday that a Baltimore judge overstepped his authority by ordering the city NAACP to permit youth members to vote in elections, saying judges should not second-guess a volunteer group's internal affairs.

The ruling reverses a Dec. 5, 1994, decision by Circuit Judge Robert I. H. Hammerman, who ordered the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to permit members ages 17 to 20 to vote in that year's election of officers.

"Where no economic interest is at stake we shall not ordinarily review the decisions of a voluntary private organization," Judge Irma S. Raker wrote for a unanimous Court of Appeals.

Hammerman's order would have allowed 500 youth members who paid a $3 youth membership fee to vote for president of the Baltimore NAACP, but the 1994 election was postponed while the case worked its way through the courts, leaving Rodney A. Orange president of the 4,000-member city chapter.

Donald M. Falk, who represented the NAACP in the suit, said yesterday it is unclear when the next election will be.

He said the city chapter could hold an election in a few weeks or wait until fall when Orange's term would expire and an election would be held anyway.

"The bottom line, the practical effect, is the NAACP is going to be able to continue to conduct elections the way they have been conducting them," Falk said.

The ruling is significant because it orders judges to keep their hands out of the internal affairs of groups like the NAACP, which is the point he argued on appeal, Falk said.

"If you have state courts stepping in and second-guessing a volunteer organization every time someone in the organization is unhappy, how can you run things?" he said.

Youth members historically had been barred from voting in NAACP branch elections until 1994, when an amendment to the national group's constitution and bylaws allowed 17- to 20-year-old members of branches with active youth councils to vote in youth council or branch elections.

However, NAACP lawyers said the amendment allowed youth members to vote only if they paid the $10 adult membership fee.

Kobi Little, the former president of the Johns Hopkins University NAACP chapter, filed suit in Baltimore Circuit Court three days before the Nov. 28, 1994, election to reverse the $10 fee requirement for youth members to vote.

Little had recruited about 500 new youth members and was hoping to challenge Orange, who was seeking a second term as president.

Attempts to reach Orange and Little yesterday were unsuccessful.

But Little's lawyer said the ruling probably would have a minimal effect because of the change in power within the NAACP since the suit was filed.

Warren A. Brown, the lawyer, said Little works closely with Kweisi Mfume, who this year became president and chief executive officer of the national NAACP,to encourage more youths to participate.

"This really was an old guard against a young guard kind of dispute, and a lot of those differences have since fallen by the wayside," Brown said.

Pub Date: 7/27/96

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