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Supreme Court hits Ralph Nader with $89,821 bill for his 2004 Pennsylvania ballot bid upholding first-of-kind ruling

By       Message Michael Richardson     Permalink
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The U.S. Supreme Court, by refusing to review a decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, has upheld a hefty $89,821 penalty levied against Ralph Nader for his failure to obtain ballot access in 2004 during his presidential campaign.

Nader has been ordered to pay the costs of the nineteen lawyers hired by the Democratic Party to challenge his nomination petitions in the Keystone State. This ruling will have a pronounced chilling effect on future candidates in Pennsylvania concerned about large legal bills if they lose. The original bill was $81,102, but has swelled because of interest accrued during the appeal.

Many Democrats blame Ralph Nader for the outcome of the 2000 presidential election where he supposedly siphoned off Democrat voters from the candidacy of Al Gore. Because of that animus, the Democrat Party waged a powerful war of attrition on Nader's 2004 candidacy bringing litigation against Nader in twenty lawsuits in seventeen states. Nader won fifteen of the lawsuits but lost after a hard-fought legal battle in Pennsylvania.

Around the nation, the Democrat Party hired eighty-nine lawyers from forty-eight law firms for the battle to keep Nader off the ballot. Coordinating the legal army was a command group called The Ballot Project whose stated goal was to "neutralize" Nader's campaign by forcing him "to spend money and resources defending these things."

Pennsylvania's restrictive ballot access law required Nader to submit 25,697 nomination petition signatures. Nader doubled that number up and turned in 51,273 signatures. The Democrats sued to challenge Nader's petitions and eleven Pennsylvania judges were assigned to hear the case in courtrooms around the state. Judge James Colins led the judicial team and eventually decided that Nader only had 18,818 valid signatures.

Dissenting from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court majority, which upheld Judge Colins, was Justice Saylor who found that 8,976 of the disqualified signatures should have been permitted, enough to have placed Nader on the ballot.

Emboldened by the state high court support for unbounded discretion, Judge Colins has since assessed the 2006 Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate, Carl Romanelli, with another punitive penalty of $89,668 for failure to make the ballot in a challenge brought again by the Democrats. This new doctrine of imposing stiff financial penalties to losing candidates is expected to sharply reduce candidacies of independent and minor party candidates who can little afford to take the risk of bankruptcy to run for office.

Romanelli had the additional burden, due to a quirk of the election cycle, of needing a whooping 67,000 signatures to place his name on the ballot under Pennsylvania's restrictive election code.

The ruling against Nader is the first of its kind in Pennsylvania and since followed by a similar ruling against Romanelli signals a new method of attack against political opponents that will have a chilling effect on candidate's First Amendment rights. Whether the two major parties start using the tactic against each other, or save the punitive penalties for independent and minor party candidates remains to be seen. Nader's attorneys argued in their brief to the Supreme Court that the Pennsylvania ruling would spread to other states and greatly diminish voter choice in future elections.

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Michael Richardson is a freelance writer based in Boston. Richardson writes about politics, law, nutrition, ethics, and music. Richardson is also a political consultant.

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