530 U.S. 567 (2000), 99-401, California Democratic Party v. Jones

Docket Nº:No. 99-401
Citation:530 U.S. 567, 120 S.Ct. 2402, 147 L.Ed.2d 502, 68 U.S.L.W. 4604
Case Date:June 26, 2000
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 567

530 U.S. 567 (2000)

120 S.Ct. 2402, 147 L.Ed.2d 502, 68 U.S.L.W. 4604




No. 99-401

United States Supreme Court

June 26, 2000

Argued April 24, 2000



One way that candidates for public office in California gain access to the general ballot is by winning a qualified political party's primary. In 1996, Proposition 198 changed the State's partisan primary from a closed primary, in which only a political party's members can vote on its nominees, to a blanket primary, in which each voter's ballot lists every candidate regardless of party affiliation and allows the voter to choose freely among them. The candidate of each party who wins the most votes is that party's nominee for the general election. Each of petitioner political parties prohibits nonmembers from voting in the party's primary. They filed suit against respondent state official, alleging, inter alia, that the blanket primary violated their First Amendment rights of association. Respondent Californians for an Open Primary intervened. The District Court held that the primary's burden on petitioners' associational rights was not severe and was justified by substantial state interests. The Ninth Circuit affirmed.


California's blanket primary violates a political party's First Amendment right of association. Pp. 572-586.

(a) States play a major role in structuring and monitoring the primary election process, but the processes by which political parties select their nominees are not wholly public affairs that States may regulate freely. To the contrary, States must act within limits imposed by the Constitution when regulating parties' internal processes. See, e. g., Eu v. San Francisco County Democratic Central Comm., 489 U.S. 214. Respondents misplace their reliance on Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649, and Terry v. Adams, 345 U.S. 461, which held not that party affairs are public affairs, free of First Amendment protections, see, e. g., Tashjian v. Republican Party of Conn., 479 U.S. 208, but only that, when a State prescribes an election process that gives a special role to political parties, the parties' discriminatory action becomes state action under the Fifteenth Amendment. This Nation has a tradition of political associations in which citizens band together to promote candidates who espouse their political views. The First Amendment protects the freedom to join together to further common political beliefs, id., at 214-215, which presupposes the freedom to identify those who constitute the

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association, and to limit the association to those people, Democratic Party of United States v. Wisconsin ex rel. La Follette, 450 U.S. 107, 122. In no area is the political association's right to exclude more important than in its candidate-selection process. That process often determines the party's positions on significant public policy issues, and it is the nominee who is the party's ambassador charged with winning the general electorate over to its views. The First Amendment reserves a special place, and accords a special protection, for that process, Eu, supra, at 224, because the moment of choosing the party's nominee is the crucial juncture at which the appeal to common principles may be translated into concerted action, and hence to political power, Tashjian, supra, at 216. California's blanket primary violates these principles. Proposition 198 forces petitioners to adulterate their candidate-selection process—a political party's basic function—by opening it up to persons wholly unaffiliated with the party, who may have different views from the party. Such forced association has the likely outcome—indeed, it is Proposition 198's intended outcome—of changing the parties' message. Because there is no heavier burden on a political party's associational freedom, Proposition 198 is unconstitutional unless it is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest. See Timmons v. Twin Cities Area New Party, 520 U.S. 351, 358. Pp. 572-582.

(b) None of respondents' seven proffered state interests—producing elected officials who better represent the electorate, expanding candidate debate beyond the scope of partisan concerns, ensuring that disenfranchised persons enjoy the right to an effective vote, promoting fairness, affording voters greater choice, increasing voter participation, and protecting privacy—is a compelling interest justifying California's intrusion into the parties' associational rights. Pp. 582-586.

169 F.3d 646, reversed.

Scalia, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and O'Connor, Kennedy, Souter, Thomas, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Kennedy, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 586. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Ginsburg, J., joined as to Part I, post, p. 590.

George Waters argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were Lance H. Olson, N. Eugene Hill, and Charles H. Bell, Jr.

Thomas F. Gede, Special Assistant Attorney General of California, argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief were Bill Lockyer, Attorney General, Manuel

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M. Medeiros, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Andrea Lynn Hoch, Lead Supervising Deputy Attorney General, and James P. Clark. [*]

Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question whether the State of California may, consistent with the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, use a so-called "blanket" primary to determine a political party's nominee for the general election.


Under California law, a candidate for public office has two routes to gain access to the general ballot for most state and federal elective offices. He may receive the nomination of a qualified political party by winning its primary,[1] see

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Cal. Elec. Code Ann. §§ 15451, 13105(a) (West 1996); or he may file as an independent by obtaining (for a statewide race) the signatures of one percent of the State's electorate or (for other races) the signatures of three percent of the voting population of the area represented by the office in contest, see § 8400.

Until 1996, to determine the nominees of qualified parties California held what is known as a "closed" partisan primary, in which only persons who are members of the political party— i. e., who have declared affiliation with that party when they register to vote, see Cal. Elec. Code Ann. §§ 2150, 2151 (West 1996 and Supp. 2000)—can vote on its nominee, see Cal. Elec. Code Ann. § 2151 (West 1996). In 1996 the citizens of California adopted by initiative Proposition 198. Promoted largely as a measure that would "weaken" party "hard-liners" and ease the way for "moderate problem-solvers," App. 89-90 (reproducing ballot pamphlet distributed to voters), Proposition 198 changed California's partisan primary from a closed primary to a blanket primary. Under the new system, "[a]ll persons entitled to vote, including those not affiliated with any political party, shall have the right to vote . . . for any candidate regardless of the candidate's political affiliation." Cal. Elec. Code Ann. § 2001 (West Supp. 2000); see also § 2151. Whereas under the closed primary each voter received a ballot limited to candidates of his own party, as a result of Proposition 198 each voter's primary ballot now lists every candidate regardless of party affiliation and allows the voter to choose freely among them. It remains the case, however, that the candidate of each party who wins the greatest number of votes "is the nominee of that party at the ensuing general election." Cal. Elec. Code Ann. § 15451 (West 1996).[2]

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Petitioners in this case are four political parties—the California Democratic Party, the California Republican Party, the Libertarian Party of California, and the Peace and Freedom Party—each of which has a rule prohibiting persons not members of the party from voting in the party's primary.[3] Petitioners brought suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California against respondent California Secretary of State, alleging, inter alia, that California's blanket primary violated their First Amendment rights of association, and seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. The group Californians for an Open Primary, also respondent, intervened as a party defendant. The District Court recognized that the new law would inject into each party's primary substantial numbers of voters unaffiliated with the party. 984 F.Supp. 1288, 1298-1299 (1997). It further recognized that this might result in selection of a nominee different from the one party members would select, or at the least cause the same nominee to commit himself to different positions. Id., at 1299. Nevertheless, the District Court held that the burden on petitioners' rights of association was not a severe one, and was justified by state interests ultimately reducing to this: "enhanc[ing] the democratic nature of the election process and the representativeness of elected officials." Id., at 1301. The Ninth Circuit, adopting the District Court's opinion as its own, affirmed. 169 F.3d 646 (1999). We granted certiorari. 528 U.S. 1133 (2000).

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Respondents rest their defense of the blanket primary upon the proposition that primaries play an integral role in citizens' selection of public officials. As a consequence, they contend, primaries are public rather than private proceedings, and the States may and must play a role in ensuring that they serve the public interest. Proposition 198, respondents conclude, is simply a rather pedestrian example of a State's regulating its system of elections.

We have recognized, of course, that States have a major role to play in structuring and monitoring the election process, including primaries. See Burdick v....

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