Federal Judge Puts US Rep. John Conyers Back on Primary Ballot

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U.S. Rep. John Conyers’ on-again, off-again roller-coaster ride for the Aug. 5 ballot took a new twist Friday when U.S. District Judge Matthew Leitman put the 85-year-old congressman back on the ballot.

Leitman’s decision, released late Friday, contradicts the Secretary of State’s review of Conyers’ petitions, which found earlier in the day that Conyers had less than half the required signatures of valid registered voters on the petitions he turned in to qualify for the Aug. 5 primary ballot.

But Leitman said the requirement that petition circulators be registered voters — the issue that got Conyers booted off the ballot in the first place — put serious limitations on the free speech rights of the circulators, the people who signed the petitions and Conyers.

“The public interest favors the enjoining of the likely unconstitutional Registration Statute,” for circulators, Leitman said.

He also said that for at least two of the circulators, who Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett and Secretary of State Ruth Johnson said weren’t properly registered to vote, the proof wasn’t there.

“There is evidence that their failure to comply with the Registration Statute was the result of good faith mistakes and that they believed they were in compliance with the statute,” Leitman said in his ruling.

“As Secretary (of State Ruth) Johnson implicitly acknowledged in her ruling issued today, if the signatures excluded pursuant to the Registration Statute may not be excluded from Mr. Conyers’ total — and this Court holds that they may not be — then Mr. Conyers has enough signatures to qualify for placement on the ballot,” Leitman added. “He shall be placed on the ballot.”

The Conyers’ campaign was ecstatic, calling the ruling “a red letter day for democracy.”

Judge Leitman’s decision “affirms that all should have equal entry and access to the political process,” Conyers said in a prepared statement Friday. “I am thankful that we now have an opportunity to have a more vigorous discussion about the issues that affect us all. I always felt that democracy would win.”

John Pirich, Conyers’ attorney, said he was confident going into the case. “And that confidence never wavered.”

And Michael Steinberg, the legal director of ACLU of Michigan, which first filed the lawsuit that Conyers later joined, said the ruling is about much more than Conyers.

“It’s about the free speech associated with petitioning in support of political candidates,” he said. “Judge Leitman’s wise decision is not just a victory for Conyers, but for all who want to participate in the political process, free of unnecessary government restrictions.”

It wasn’t immediately known whether Johnson’s office will appeal the decision.

“It’s too early to comment. We’ve received the judge’s order, but will have to review it with our attorneys before we decide how to proceed,” said Gisgie Gendreau, spokeswoman for Johnson. “What I can tell you is that the secretary is sworn to uphold the law, and that’s what she has done in this case and will continue to do.”

The ruling ended a day in which the Secretary of State confirmed a decision last week from Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett that Conyers didn’t have enough signatures to qualify for the Aug. 5 primary ballot.

The review concluded that petition signatures gathered by at least five circulators were invalid because the signers were either not registered to vote, not registered to vote while the petitions were being circulated, or had addresses on the petitions that didn’t match their voter registrations. As a result, the Secretary of State ruled Conyers had only 455 valid signatures, far short of the 1,000 required by state law.

“The Michigan Election Law is designed to protect the purity of the ballot access process,” the review said. “The laws governing this activity place affirmative duties on petition circulators. As evidenced over the past two election cycles, when campaigns fail to comply with the law by executing basic principles of petition circulation, they create their own ‘ballot access crisis’ when their failures are discovered by or brought to the attention of election officials. In this instance, consultant Steve Hood freely admitted that he failed to ensure that the petition circulators he hired to work on Conyers’ campaign were registered to vote.”

But Leitman said previous federal court rulings in Ohio regarding petition gathering for independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader clearly state “That it was undisputable that the plaintiff suffered a serious limitation on his First Amendment rights. … That is exactly what happened in this case.”

At stake for Conyers, who was first elected to Congress in 1964, was whether he would have a spot on the Aug. 5 primary ballot or will have to mount a costly write-in campaign. Leitman ordered Garrett to certify Conyers for the primary ballot by Thursday.

The Rev. Horace Sheffield, the Detroit Democrat who is running for Conyers’ seat in Congress, challenged the petitions, arguing that many past candidates have been able to abide by the rules requiring petition circulators be registered voters and that Conyers should, too.

“We welcome him back on the ballot and we’ll see if he’s going to debate the issues or disappear like he usually does,” said Adolph Mongo, a Detroit political consultant working with Sheffield. “The name of the game is going to be hardball for the congressman. The time has come for him to be beat.”

With Leitman’s ruling, barring a successful appeal, Conyers avoids what could have been an embarrassing end to a 50-year career in Congress in which he became a leading voice for liberals and civil rights. He was one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus and was the chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee. He is the longest-serving African American in Congress.

According to state law, Conyers had to turn in at least 1,000 valid signatures of registered voters in the 13th Congressional District to get a spot on the ballot. Those signatures must be collected by people who also are registered voters.

Garrett wasn’t immediately available for comment, but Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey said Friday’s ruling means she won’t have to administer another write-in campaign. The handling last year of thousands of write-in votes for Mayor Mike Duggan caused controversy because local elections officials disagreed about which votes to count.

“Democratic society speaks to access to the ballot,” Winfrey said. “I’m not surprised at all.”

The ACLU’s lawsuit, joined by Conyers, questioned the constitutionality of the requirement that circulators be registered voters. The U.S. Supreme Court, as well as federal courts in Ohio and the western district of Michigan, have ruled in cases with similar issues and have thrown out that requirement.

In addition, Michigan’s Legislature passed a law earlier this year that said circulators of ballot proposals and initiatives petitions do not have to be registered voters in Michigan. Candidates for state office can either turn in petitions or pay a $100 filing, which is what most candidates choose.

Incumbent judges get the best deal, merely having to file their intent to seek re-election, plus getting designated as an incumbent on the ballot. Nonincumbent judicial candidates have to get petition signatures ranging from 200 for some district courts to 4,000 for the biggest circuit courts.

That was a point Leitman emphasized in his ruling.

“That is exactly what the State did earlier this year with respect to individuals wishing to circulate petitions for referenda, constitutional amendments and certain political offices. … It eliminated the need for these petitioners to be regisered voters.”