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Price v. New York State Board of Elections

October 22, 2007

DAVID PRICE, AS A CANDIDATE FOR THE POSITION FOR ALBANY COUNTY REPUBLICAN COMMITTEEMAN FROM THE 14TH WARD, 6TH DISTRICT, CITY OF ALBANY, THE ALBANY COUNTY REPUBLICAN COMMITTEE, MARTHA MCMAHON AND JAMES THORNTON, ABSENTEE VOTERS, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
THE NEW YORK STATE BOARD OF ELECTIONS, NEIL W. KELLEHER, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS A COMMISSIONER OF THE NEW YORK STATE BOARD OF ELECTIONS, DOUGLAS A. KELLNER, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS A COMMISSIONER OF THE NEW YORK STATE BOARD OF ELECTIONS, EVELYN J. AQUILA, IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS A COMMISSIONER OF THE NEW YORK STATE BOARD OF ELECTIONS, HELENA MOSES DONOHUE, IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS A COMMISSIONER OF THE NEW YORK STATE BOARD OF ELECTIONS, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gary L. Sharpe U.S. District Judge

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

I. Introduction

David Price, the Albany County Republican Committee, Martha McMahon, and James Thornton (collectively, the "Republican Party") bring this civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988 for deprivations of their rights secured by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Pending before the court is the Republican Party's motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 22) and the New York State Board of Elections' cross-motion to dismiss (Dkt. 24). For the reasons set forth below, the Republican Party's motion for summary judgment is denied, and the New York State Board of Elections' cross-motion to dismiss is granted. New York Election Law § 7-122 does not burden a fundamental right, and it is rationally related to a legitimate government interest.

II. Jurisdiction

The Republican Party invokes the court's jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1343(a)(3) and 1343(a)(4), which provide for original jurisdiction over all suits brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Jurisdiction is also conferred on the court by 28 U.S.C. § 1331 because the cause of action arises under the Constitution and laws of the United States.

Although neither party has raised the prospect of mootness,*fn1 the court notes that this case is not moot, because the Republican Party has requested nominal damages. See Van Wie v. Pataki, 267 F.3d 109, 115 n. 4 (2d Cir. 2001) (noting that "plaintiffs in election cases [can] avoid the potential for mootness by simply expressly pleading that should the election pass before the issuance of injunctive relief, nominal money damages are requested").

III. Procedural History

On September 8, 2006, the Republican Party filed its original complaint against the Albany County Board of Elections ("County Board") and the New York State Board of Elections ("State Board"). Dkt. 1. The same day, the Republican Party filed an emergency motion for a temporary restraining order ("TRO"). They asked the court to order the County Board to immediately distribute to all eligible Republican Primary absentee voters an absentee ballot that contained a provision for casting a ballot for the party position of Albany County Committeeman in the 14th Ward 6th District ("14-6 Committeeman"). See Dkt. 3. The Republican Party's need for emergency relief was premised on the fact that the Republican Primary was scheduled for September 12, 2006, four days away.

At a hearing on September 11, 2006, the day before the Republican Primary, the court heard arguments from counsel for the parties and granted the TRO. See Transcript of Proceedings; Dkt. 19. The order, signed by the court on September 11, 2006, directed the County Board to make available to individual plaintiffs McMahon and Thornton a supplemental paper ballot containing a provision for voting for the party position of 14-6 Committeeman. Dkt. 6. The County Board was further directed not to tally, canvass, or cast the supplemental ballots unless and until ordered to do so by the court, and not to certify a winner of the election for the party position of 14-6 Committeeman unless and until ordered by the court. Id.

Following the election, on September 28, 2006, the Republican Party filed an amended complaint, which added State Board Commissioners Neil Kelleher, Douglas Kellner, Evelyn Aquila, and Helena Moses Donohue (collectively, the "Commissioners") as defendants. Dkt. 9. By stipulation and order dated October 2, 2006, all claims against the County Board were dismissed subject to the County Board's agreement to abide by any and all subsequent orders of the court with respect to the tallying, canvassing, and/or casting of the absentee ballots of individual plaintiffs McMahon and Thornton. See Dkt. 11. The State Board and the Commissioners filed their respective answers to the amended complaint on October 18, 2006. Dkt. 12, 13.

By letter dated May 4, 2007, counsel for the Republican Party informed the court that the parties, being in agreement that the case involved solely a question of law, planned to make cross motions for summary judgment. See Dkt. 20. On July 13, 2007, the Republican Party filed its motion for summary judgment. Dkt. 22. On July 30, the State Board filed its cross motion to dismiss.*fn2 Dkt. 24. The Republican Party filed its reply to the cross motion to dismiss on September 13, 2007. Dkt. 29. The court heard oral argument on October 4, 2007.

IV. Facts

The facts of this case are largely undisputed. Thus, the court touches only briefly on the particulars of the Republican Primary of 2006, and focuses most of its attention more broadly on the laws that govern primaries, including New York Election Law § 7-122, which the Republican Party claims is unconstitutional.

1. The Republican Primary, in General

Pursuant to the rules of the Albany County Republican Committee (the "Republican Committee") and New York State Election Law, the Republican Committee is composed of two representatives from each of the 349 election districts in Albany County. See Decl. of Peter Kermani in Supp. of Pls.' Mot. for Summ. J. ("Kermani Decl.") ¶¶ 3, 5; Dkt. 22. These representatives (the "Committeemen") are elected biannually in even number years (e.g., elections in 2004, 2006, etc.), and their term of office begins the day after the Republican Primary at which they are elected. Id. at ¶¶ 7,8.*fn3

In order for a candidate's name to appear on the ballot for a Committeeman position, the candidate must circulate a designating petition. Id. at ¶ 10. In the event that only one candidate has submitted a valid designating petition for a given seat on the Republican Committee, then no election is necessary.*fn4 The Republican Party asserts that contested elections for Committeeman positions are relatively rare; generally, only three or four seats are contested during an election cycle. See Pls.' Statement of Material Facts ("Pls.' S.M.F.") ¶¶ 9, 10; Dkt. 22.*fn5

2. The 2006 Republican Primary

As it happened, the position of 14-6 Committeeman was contested at the Republican Primary on September 12, 2006. In addition to individual plaintiff David Price, Joseph Sullivan and Anthony Gray also filed designating petitions for the position of 14-6 Committeeman. See Kermani Decl. ¶ 12; Dkt. 22. Thus, there were three candidates for two positions. The two open positions were to be voted on by the approximately 27 enrolled Republicans residing in the 14th Ward 6th District of Albany County. Id. at ¶ 21.

Individual plaintiffs Martha McMahon and James Thornton reside in the 14th Ward 6th District, and were, at the time the original complaint was filed, eligible to vote for the position of 14-6 Committeeman. However, they planned to be out of Albany County on election day, and thus both submitted applications to vote by absentee ballot. McMahon and Thornton submit that they applied for absentee ballots mainly because of their interest in voting for the position of 14-6 Committeeman. See Pls.' S.M.F. ¶ 19; Dkt. 22. The County Board approved the applications, and sent McMahon and Thornton absentee ballots for the Republican Primary. In accordance with the mandate of New York Election Law § 7-122, the absentee ballots did not include provisions for casting a ballot for the position of 14-6 Committeeman. Id. at ¶ 22.

On September 12, 2006, the County Board determined the unofficial results of the election for the party position of 14-6 Committeeman to be:

David Price: 10

Joseph Sullivan: 7

Anthony Gray: 7

Id. at ¶ 27. These results do not include the votes of McMahon and Thornton, which remain sealed. Id. at ¶¶ 29, 30.

3. Election Law § 7-122

As stated above, the absentee ballots that were provided to McMahon and Thornton did not include provisions for casting a ballot for the party position of 14-6 Committeeman. This is in accordance with New York Election Law § 7-122, which provides, in relevant part:

Ballots for absentee voters shall be, as nearly as practicable, in the same form as those to be voted in the district on election day, if any, except that ballots for primary elections shall omit the party position of ward, town, city or county committee . . . .

N.Y. ELEC. LAW § 7-122(1)(a) (emphasis added).*fn6 The parties agree that the absentee ballots provided to McMahon and Thornton complied with applicable law. At issue is the constitutionality of said law.

V. Discussion

A. Standard of ...


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