California's `blanket primary' violates rights of political parties, court rules

Ruling could affect `open primaries' held in Md., elsewhere

June 27, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that state laws that give all voters a chance to influence a political party's choice of candidates are unconstitutional.

The court based its ruling on a fervent defense of the right of political parties to control their message by picking the candidates their members want to speak for them.

The 7-2 decision nullified a California law - the voter-approved Proposition 198 of 1996 - creating what is called a "blanket primary." The ruling also appeared to nullify similar laws in Alaska, Louisiana and Washington state.

The court's decision came in a flurry of activity as Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist announced that the court would finish its term tomorrow. The justices are expected to issue rulings that day on abortion rights, abortion clinic demonstrations, government aid to parochial schools, and the Boy Scouts' exclusion of homosexuals as members or adult leaders.

Under the kind of blanket primary law nullified by yesterday's California ruling, all candidates of all parties and independents are listed on a single ballot, and every registered voter in the state - of whatever party, or independent - uses that ballot to pick and choose for each office. The winners run in the general election.

That is different from an "open primary," in which all voters are allowed to ask for a party's ballot at the primary election but may vote only for candidates of that party. It also differs from a "closed primary," in which only registered members of the party vote on its candidates.

Maryland is one of 25 states that use versions of a closed primary. The Republican Party in Maryland opted to open its primary last year to independents, while the Democrats confined theirs to their own party members.

Twenty-one states have versions of an open primary.

The court, in an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia that was filled with ringing affirmations of the right of political parties to choose with whom they will not associate, said it was not ruling on the constitutionality of anything but the blanket primary approach.

Justice John Paul Stevens said in a dissenting opinion that the ruling not only nullified blanket primaries, but "cast serious constitutional doubt" on 21 states' laws providing for open primaries and eight states' laws providing for "semi-closed primaries" that include independents - Maryland's Republican version.

California voters approved the blanket primary in hopes of reducing partisanship in state elections and with the aim of getting candidates of more moderate views nominated by appealing to a wider range of voter interests.

That is what makes that kind of primary unconstitutional, Scalia wrote. The law, he said, forces "political parties to associate with those who do not share their beliefs."

"Proposition 198 forces political parties to associate with - to have their nominees, and hence their positions, determined by - those who, at best, have refused to affiliate with the party, and, at worst, have expressly affiliated with a rival," he wrote.

That approach, Scalia said, "encourages candidates - and officeholders who hope to be renominated - to curry favor with persons whose views are more `centrist' than those of the party base."

Four California parties - Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, and Peace and Freedom - challenged the law's constitutionality.

Scalia's opinion was supported by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, David H. Souter and Clarence Thomas. Joining Stevens in dissent was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In a wide variety of other actions yesterday, the court announced these results:

By a 5-4 vote, it ruled that states may not impose a more severe sentence on someone who commits the crime out of hostility to someone's race, sex or national origin, unless a jury finds "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the hostility led to the crime.

The decision nullified a New Jersey law that was used to increase the sentence of a Vineland man for shooting into the home of a black family newly arrived in his white neighborhood. Under that law, the judge, not the jury, found that the incident involved a "hate crime." The judge did so by a less rigorous standard than "beyond a reasonable doubt."

More broadly, the court ruled for the first time that any factor in a criminal case that would lead to an enhanced sentence must be deciding by a jury, using the reasonable doubt standard - the toughest test in law.

The court agreed, in a Texas case, to decide whether it is unconstitutional for police to take people into custody in handcuffs and jail them for failure to hook up seat belts in a car or truck.

In a Pennsylvania case, the court said it would decide for the first time whether the media may be punished for publishing or broadcasting information that someone else obtained illegally.

The case involves two radio stations that had played an illegally wiretapped conversation between two teachers union leaders during a dispute over a new contract. Lower courts ruled that the First Amendment bars punishment for those who use or disclose information, when they did not themselves take part in obtaining it unlawfully. All of the new cases the court agreed yesterday to hear will be decided in the court term starting in October.

In another order, the court told a federal appeals court to reconsider a ruling allowing a wide range of student-initiated prayers in Alabama public schools. The justices said that decision should be re-examined in the wake of last week's ruling that appeared to nullify nearly all student-led prayers at public schools.

The court also refused to review an Illinois decision to deny a law license to an individual because he is an avowed racist.

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