The Constitution Party of Pa. v. Cortes — election law — affirmance — Smith
The Third Circuit has been issuing some fascinating opinions over the past few weeks, and today brings another. The court affirmed a summary judgment grant in favor of several political parties who challenged Pennsylvania’s election-law system for making it too difficult for third parties to get on the ballot.
The defendants in the case were two state elections officials, and they were represented on appeal by the office of the PA attorney general. The officials did not challenge the substance of the district court ruling that the state’s ballot-access provisions were unconstitutional as applied. Instead, the officials appealed only two issues their brief characterized as “relatively narrow” and “more technical,” namely whether the district court’s order was invalid because it denied a facial challenge but accepted an as-applied challenge and whether the plaintiffs sued the wrong state officials.
The opinion amounts to a brutal indictment of the competence of the OAG’s advocacy in the case, an indictment all the more remarkable coming from one of the court’s most even-tempered judges. On the first appeal issue, the appellants “misunderstand the fundamental difference between facial and as-applied challenges.” Ouch. On the second issue, their position “falls apart once one properly understands the District Court’s opinion” and “is, to say the least, off the mark.” Pow.
Perhaps the most withering criticism comes in a footnote discussing the appellants’ decision not to challenge the district court’s ruling that the plaintiff’s constitutional rights were violated (emphasis mine):
In its opening brief, the Commonwealth notes that “[t]he legal rub here is that, even assuming some constitutional injury, or potential injury, has been inflicted on the litigants . . . that injury was not and could not be inflicted by the two officials they sued . . . .” Appellants’ Br. at 3. The Commonwealth then makes the two arguments discussed above but never addresses the District Court’s opinion on the merits. The Aspiring Parties take note of this and state that “the Commonwealth concedes that the challenged statutory scheme is unconstitutional as applied to the Minor Parties.” Appellees’ Br. at 28. In its reply, the Commonwealth argues that “[t]here was no concession.” Appellants’ Reply Br. at 3. Instead, the Commonwealth tries to argue that somehow they were able to dodge the merits of this case by assuming an injury and only raising these narrower issues on appeal. This displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the federal appellate process: by not challenging the merits of the District Court’s order, if the Commonwealth loses on the two arguments it raised in this appeal, the order will remain in effect and the Commonwealth will not be able to enforce both provisions against the Aspiring Parties. Indeed, at oral argument the Commonwealth conceded that this was a conscious decision, but when asked why it chose such a litigation strategy, its answer was more opaque than illuminating. See Oral Argument at 00:10:20, Cortes v. Constitution Party of Pa., (No. 15-3046).
Language like that is rare in this circuit; seeing it directed at lawyers in an office of a state attorney general is extraordinary. What a disaster.
Joining Smith were Ambro and Krause. Arguing counsel were Oliver Hall of the Center for Competitive Democracy for the third-party challengers and Claudia Tesoro of the Office of the Attorney General, joined on the brief by three other OAG lawyers and one law firm lawyer, for the state officials.