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Tennessee Wins Appeal on Ballot Procedures

(CN) - A federal judge should decide Tennessee fixed ballot procedures that he previously slammed as unfair to minor political parties, the 6th Circuit ruled.

Unhappy with changes to Tennessee ballot-access laws that took effect in May 2011, the Green Party and Constitution Party of Tennessee filed suit in July of that year.

The same parties had been involved in a previous round of litigation that led the Middle District of Tennessee to strike down its ballot-access laws and compel the reform.

In their 2011 lawsuit, the parties complained that Tennessee still denied them access to the ballot by enforcing tough requirements to qualify as a "recognized minor party." They took issue with a signature provision, a 119-day filing deadline, the order by which parties are listed on the ballot and a rule that forbids minor parties from using the words "independent" and "nonpartisan" in their names.

A federal judge in Nashville granted the parties summary judgment in February 2012, finding most challenged provisions facially unconstitutional.

In its sole finding for the state, the judge upheld the signature requirement as reasonable.

Pending the appeal, a three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit stayed an order that would have forced Tennessee to determine party order for the ballot by conducting a random public drawing.

Meanwhile, Tennessee tried its hand again at amending the ballot-access laws.

The new rules, enacted by lawmakers in April 2012, relax some of the procedural requirements.

Though the parties must still meet signature requirements, they can file petitions as late as 90 days before the November general election. Candidates of the party are freed from the provision altogether.

"Whereas the 2011 legislation required minor parties to select their nominees for certain offices by means of a primary election, the 2012 legislation allows minor parties to select their nominees for all offices according to their own rules," the 6th Circuit noted in its latest order, filed Friday.

These changes may have made the appeal moot, the Cincinnati-based court found.

"The plaintiffs' ballot-access challenge boils down to two separate claims: (1) that the party-primary requirement impermissibly burdened their right to select their own nominees; and (2) that the party-primary requirement, the 119-day filing deadline, and the 2.5% signature provision combined to deny them access to the ballot," Judge Ronald Lee Gilman wrote for the panel. "Because Tennessee now gives minor political parties the option to select their nominees for office under their own internal rules, the first of these claims is moot. The plaintiffs' contention to the contrary - that the issue is not moot because the Tennessee General Assembly could 'revers[e] itself at some time in the future and reinstat[e] a mandatory primary for minor parties' - is pure conjecture. There is simply no evidence in the record to suggest that this scenario is likely to occur."

Unsure whether the second part of the parties' claim is also moot, the court said the issue should return to the District Court for further proceedings.

"The court should be able to evaluate the various components of Tennessee's election laws as part of the larger framework for providing ballot access to minor political parties," Gilman wrote. "That framework has fundamentally changed since the district court decided the case because the party-primary requirement is no longer mandatory, the petition-filing deadline has moved from seven months before the general election to only three months before, and minor-party candidates are no longer required to submit nominating petitions meeting the 2.5% signature provision and 119-day filing deadline unless their party chooses to hold a primary election.

"These changes are significant enough to warrant remanding the ballot-access claim to the district court for reconsideration. As part of its reconsideration, however, the district court must take into account that the 2.5% signature requirement, standing alone, is not unconstitutional on its face."

Gilman also rejected findings that the law was impermissibly vague and that the party-order rule was unconstitutional.

Finding a lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, Gilman concluded the order by dismissing the challenge to the party-naming restrictions.

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