John Conyers Jr., a member of the U.S. House since Lyndon Johnson was president, in a fight for political survival, asked a federal judge today to reverse an order barring his name from the ballot.
State election officials disqualified Conyers, 85, from the Aug. 5 Democratic Party primary ballot because too many signatures on his nominating petition were collected by campaign workers who weren’t registered to vote, a violation of Michigan law.
That left Conyers with limited choices: dropping his race, filing suit or running as a write-in candidate, an expensive and rarely successful option. He sued. If successful in court and then at the ballot, he’ll become the longest-serving representative, as his Michigan colleague John Dingell, 87, retires this year.
Conyers contends Michigan’s exclusion of signatures gathered by nonregistered campaign workers violates his First Amendment free-speech and freedom-of-association rights. At today’s hearing in federal court in Detroit, U.S. District Judge Matthew F. Leitman said other courts have split on the issue and called this case “exceptionally difficult.”
This is an “easy” case, Michael Steinberg, an attorney for Conyers’ supporters, told the judge. The U.S. appeals court in Cincinnati, which governs Michigan legal matters, had earlier ruled in a dispute involving former presidential candidate Ralph Nader that such a requirement was unconstitutional, he said.
The Sixth Circuit decision doesn’t control this dispute, and multiple court rulings have supported the state requirement that only registered voters can circulate petitions, Erik A. Grill, a Michigan assistant attorney general, told the judge.
“How can I go against the court above me?” Leitman asked, referring to the Nader decision.
Leitman said he wouldn’t rule until Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson reviews the county election clerk’s decision to keep Conyers off the ballot. Johnson is scheduled to issue a ruling by noon on May 23.
Horace Sheffield III, a Detroit minister and Conyers’s opponent in the primary, argued in court papers that Conyers waited too long to attack the Michigan law. A petition challenge by Sheffield’s campaign manager knocked Conyers off the ballot.
“By filing this suit well after the nomination petition deadline, plaintiffs have slept on their rights,” Sheffield, 59, said in court papers, referring to Conyers and his supporters.
“The state has to be able to administer an orderly election,” his lawyer, Eric Doster, said in a phone interview. “The rules they’re challenging have been on the books since 1966.”
Requiring that only registered voters can circulate petitions puts an undue burden on people supporting candidates, Steinberg said.
Leitman said he was “finding it difficult to find a real burden” on requiring these people to register to vote. If the law made it so difficult to get on the ballot, why hadn’t it been challenged before, he asked.
Conyers was first elected to Congress in 1964. One of 13 founders of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1969, he was part of the Watergate impeachment hearings in 1974, played a critical role in passing the Violence Against Women Act in 1994 and was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee from 2007 to 2011.
His district, which is overwhelmingly Democratic, encompasses Detroit’s west side and several smaller Wayne County cities. In 2012 Conyers won 83 percent of the votes in the general election.
In April, as part of his bid for a 25th term, Conyers’s campaign filed petitions with about 2,000 signatures, double the number required to place him on the ballot. Election officials rejected hundreds of them because of technical violations such as incorrect voter addresses.
Of 1,236 remaining signatures, Sheffield successfully challenged 644 because they were collected by nonregistered campaign workers. That left 592 valid ones, according to Wayne County Clerk Cathy M. Garrett.
“Conyers would have had well more than 1,000 signatures on the nominating petitions and would have qualified for the August primary ballot” if Michigan law didn’t require registered voters to gather petitions, lawyers for the congressman and his supporters said in court papers.
Conyers last week joined a lawsuit against Garrett and the Michigan secretary of state filed by two supporters, including one who distributed petitions. They want Leitman to order election officials to count the invalidated signatures and place his name on the ballot.
Petition-circulation is political speech and can’t be restricted under the U.S. Constitution, said Andrew Paterson, the attorney for Robert Davis, a member of the Highland Park, Michigan, school board who also sued and wants the judge to invalidate the petition law.
Conyers has also appealed the disqualification to Secretary of State Johnson. Officials in that office will “recheck the work” of the county clerk, said Gisgie Davila Gendreau, Johnson’s spokeswoman.
On Johnson’s behalf, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican, argued in court papers that it would be “unfair” to other candidates to change the petition law after the filing deadline.
Ultimately, Conyers will wage a write-in campaign if rejected by the judge and secretary of state, Bert Johnson, his campaign manager, said. The Conyers campaign is heartened by the success of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan in winning last year’s primary as a write-in, he said in an interview.
“We know it will be an expensive proposition,” Johnson said. “But we’re fully prepared to execute that plan.”
The case is Moore v. Johnson, 14-cv-11903, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan (Detroit).