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Breck v. Stapleton

United States District Court, D. Montana, Missoula Division

April 8, 2017

CORY STAPLETON, in his official capacity as Secretary of State of the State of Montana, Defendant.


          Brian Morris United States District Court Judge

         I. Overview

         Plaintiffs assert that the State of Montana has established unconstitutional ballot access laws as applied to the upcoming special election for the United States House of Representatives. Plaintiffs consist of three people who seek to run in the special election as a minor party candidate or as independent candidates and a voter who wishes to cast her vote for one of these candidates. The three candidates' names will not appear on the special election ballot unless the Court intervenes on their behalf.

         Plaintiffs have filed a Motion for Temporary Injunction and Preliminary Injunction (“Motion for TRO”). (Doc. 3.) Plaintiffs argue that Montana's signature requirement for minor and independent party candidates to be placed on the ballot represents an unconstitutional barrier to ballot access. (Doc. 4 at 10.) Plaintiffs seek a TRO to prevent the Montana Secretary of State, Cory Stapleton, from enforcing the signature requirement for ballot access in the special election. (Doc. 3.) Plaintiffs also request that the Court order the Montana Secretary of State to print all of the candidates' names-Thomas Breck, Steve Kelly, and Doug Campbell-on the special election ballot. (Doc. 3.) The State of Montana, through its top election officer, Secretary of State Cory Stapleton (“the State”), opposes Plaintiffs' motions.

         II. Factual Background

         Montana's former United States Representative Ryan Zinke resigned from office on March 1, 2017, in order to assume his duties as Secretary of the Interior. (Doc. 4 at 3.) Montana Governor Steve Bullock on the same day ordered a special election to fill the at-large congressional seat left vacant by Secretary Zinke. Id. Governor Bullock scheduled the special election for May 25, 2017, the earliest date allowed by Montana law. Id., citing Mont. Code Ann. § 10-25-203.

         The Montana Green Party nominated Plaintiff Thomas Breck (“Breck”) as its candidate for the special election. (Doc. 4 at 5.) Plaintiff Steve Kelly (“Kelly”) seeks to run as an independent in the special election. Id. Plaintiff Doug Campbell (“Campbell”) also seeks to run as an independent in the special election.

         Montana law requires minor parties to submit a nominating petition containing 5, 000 signatures in order for their chosen candidate to appear on the ballot. Mont. Code Ann. §§ 13-25-205 and 13-10-601. An independent candidate, or a candidate of a minor party who failed to collect 5, 000 signatures, must file a nominating petition containing signatures totaling at least five percent of the votes cast for the last successful candidate for the office at issue. Mont. Code Ann. §§ 13-25-205(2) and 13-10-502. The five percent signature requirement for the May 25, 2017, special election would require 14, 268 signatures, according to this formula. (Doc. 4 at 5.)

         Nominating petitions containing the requisite amount of signatures were due to the Montana Secretary of State's office on March 6, 2017. Id., citing Mont. Code Ann. §§ 13-25-205(2), 13-10-503, 1-1-307. The three candidates timely submitted nominating petitions to the Montana Secretary of State. Neither Breck, nor Kelly, nor Campbell, submitted a nominating petition that contained the required 14, 268 signatures. (Doc. 4 at 6.) As a result, the Secretary of State refuses to place the names of any of the three candidates on the ballot.

         Plaintiffs filed their Complaint on March 22, 2017. (Doc. 1.) Plaintiffs allege that Montana's ballot access laws violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. (Doc. 4 at 6.) Plaintiffs seek declaratory relief and a permanent injunction against enforcement of the signature requirement for ballot access in special elections. Plaintiffs on the same day filed a motion for a TRO and PI. Plaintiffs seek an order through the TRO and the PI to force the State to place their names on the ballot. The State opposes the motions.

         The State alleges that it must mail ballots to overseas voters by April 10, 2017, to comply with state and federal law. (Doc. 15 at 14.) The State claims that approximately 39 out of Montana's 56 counties already had printed ballots in anticipation of the April 10, 2017, deadline at the time that Plaintiffs filed the Complaint in this case. Id. at 15. The State also asserts that 40 out of 56 counties had printed ballots by the time the State filed its Response to Plaintiff's Motion for a TRO. Id. The State claims that the counties that already have printed ballots would need 7 to 10 days to reprint ballots should the Court grant the Motion for a TRO. Id. The State claims the reprinting would cost the State $100, 000. Id. at 17.

         III. Discussion

         A plaintiff must demonstrate “that he is likely to succeed on the merits, that he is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, that the balance of equities tips in his favor, and that an injunction is in the public interest” in order to obtain a temporary restraining order. Winter v. Nat. Res. Def. Council, Inc., 555 U.S. 7, 20 (2008). Injunctive relief constitutes an “extreme remedy” that never should be awarded as a matter of right. Id. at 22-24.

         The State argues that Plaintiffs' requests for a mandatory injunction in the form of an order to print the names of Breck, Kelly, and Campbell on the ballot imposes a “doubly demanding” burden on Plaintiffs to establish the need for an injunction. (Doc. 15 at 18, 19, 22.), citing Garcia v. Google, Inc., 786 F.3d 733, 740 (9th Cir. 2015). The court in Garcia extrapolated that a plaintiff who requests a mandatory injunction “must establish that the law and facts clearly favor her position, ” on top of meeting the Winter standard. Id. (emphasis in original). The State argues further that an elevated standard should apply in this matter on the basis that Plaintiffs seek an injunction only a few weeks before the special election. Id. The State cites to Feldman v. Reagan, 843 F.3d 366, 375-75 (9th Cir. 2016), for the proposition that considerations particular to ongoing elections “often counsel restraint” when courts decide whether to enjoin an imminent election.

         A state surely possesses valid and important interests in regulating elections. These interests include the ability to limit the number of candidates to avoid ballot overcrowding. Munro v. Socialist Workers Party, 479 U.S. 189, 193 (1986). A state can act to preserve the fairness and integrity of the electoral process. Id., see also James v. Fortson, 403 U.S. 431, 442 (1970). And finally a state may take steps to avoid confusion, deceptions, or frustration of the democratic process. Munro, 479 U.S. at 193. In this regard, courts have noted “with unmistakable clarity” the right of a state “to require candidates to make a preliminary showing of substantial support in order to qualify for the ballot.” Id. at 194. A state's ability to regulate remains far from absolute, however, as ballot access laws implicate the rights of people to associate for political purposes and the rights of qualified voters to cast their votes effectively. Id. at 193. The Court must balance these competing interests as it assesses the preliminary injunction criteria.

         A. Likelihood of Success on the Merits

         The parties dispute whether Plaintiffs have established a likelihood of success on the merits. The Court analyzes three separate factors in assessing Plaintiffs' likelihood of success on the merits.

         1. Constitutional Framework

         Courts have recognized that restrictions on ballot access interfere specifically with candidates' and political parties' “right to associate for political purposes” and with “the rights of qualified voters to cast their votes for the candidates of their choice.” Hall v. Merrill, No. 2:13cv663-MHT (M.D. Ala. Sept. 30, 2016) (Thompson, J.), citing Williams v. Rhodes, 393 U.S. 23, 30 ...

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