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Thursday, June 20, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Ousted Ward Leader Loses Federal Challenge

PHILADELPHIA (CN) - A political challenge dismissed after Election Day affirms a longstanding political reality in Philadelphia: The Democratic City Committee might be unfair to fresh-faced challengers, and there's nothing they can do about it in federal court.

Allegations of vote rigging within the committee - the political body that elects the city's ward leaders - have stretched across the decades. Jimmie Moore, a committee member in the city's 32nd Ward, joined the storied tradition with regard to his bid this year for ward leader against the incumbent Gary Williams.

Both men received 20 votes. In a runoff, Moore won with 22 votes to Williams' 20.

An unidentified committee member soon filed an election contest with the DCC, however, challenging the validity of Moore's victory.

After barring Moore from cross-examining witnesses or hearing testimony as to the challenge, the contest committee voted to reinstate the incumbent Williams.

Moore filed suit on June 20, alleging violations of his First and 14th Amendment rights.

In dismissing the complaint Thursday, U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson found that the DCC is not a state actor and therefore not controlled by the First and 14th Amendments.

Precedent dictates "that actions by county committees of political parties, analogous to the actions alleged in Moore's complaint, were not state action," the 13-page opinion states. "For this reason, Moore's federal law claims fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted."

Support for this holding, Baylson said, stems from the 3rd Circuit's 1965 case Lynch v. Torquato, which held that "the normal role of party leaders in conducting internal affairs of their party, other than primary or general elections, does not make their party offices governmental offices or the filling of these offices state action."

"Moore's factual allegations relate solely to decisions about how to fill the party office of ward chairman through intra-party elections and dispute resolution mechanisms," Baylson added. "But filling a party office is 'not state action or action under color of state law' and so Moore's rights 'were not abridged or impaired by state action - as opposed to the private action of party leaders conducting the internal affairs of their party.'"

Though Moore's complaint also alleged violations of state law, Baylson declined to exercise jurisdiction over those claims, which he said must be pursued in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. Those claims involve Moore's bid for reinstatement as ward leader, and claim that Williams is ineligible for the position as he allegedly does not live in the ward.

The Democratic Committee in Philadelphia has a long history of infighting. In 1975, Audrey McMenamin sued the committee after it held a similar election contest in which the loser of the popular vote was retained as ward leader. McMenamin lost that suit under the standards set forth in Lynch. In 1991, another committee member sued the committee after the ward leader refused to let certain committee members vote in the election. This case was also tossed out federal court.

More recently, in 2010, the Democratic City Committee cited a committee bylaw to oust a newly elected member. Jonathan David of the Philadelphia election nonprofit Committee of Seventy, told Philadelphia City Paper after the DCC's move, it "may not seem right, but it's legal."

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