Belitskus v. Pizzingrilli

Decision Date11 September 2003
Docket NumberNo. 01-3747.,No. 01-3824.,01-3747.,01-3824.
Citation343 F.3d 632
PartiesWilliam M. BELITSKUS; Thomas Alan Linzey; Barbara Knox; John Stith; Eric Prindle; Jennaro Pullano; Ralph Nader; Nader 2000 Primary Committee; Pennsylvania Green Party; Will Donovan, III v. Kim PIZZINGRILLI, in her official capacity as Secretary of State of Pennsylvania; Richard Filling, in his official capacity as the Commissioner overseeing Pennsylvania's Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation, Appellants in Docket No. 01-3747 Thomas Alan Linzey, John Stith<SMALL><SUP>*</SUP></SMALL> Pennsylvania Green Party and Will Donovan III, Appellants in Docket No. 01-3824.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Third Circuit

D. Michael Fisher, Attorney General, John G. Knorr, III (Argued), Chief Deputy Attorney General, Chief, Appellate Litigation Section, Gregory R. Neuhauser, Senior Deputy Attorney General, Office of Attorney General, Harrisburg, PA, for Appellants/Cross Appellees.

Bonita P. Tenneriello (Argued), John C. Bonifaz, Brenda Wright, Lisa J. Danetz, National Voting Rights Institute, Boston, MA, Jordan B. Yeager, Boockvar & Yeager, Doylestown, PA, David Kairys, Philadelphia, PA, for Appellees/Cross Appellants.

Before: NYGAARD, ROTH and WEIS, Circuit Judges.


ROTH, Circuit Judge.

The Pennsylvania election code requires candidates for various local, state, and national offices to pay a filing fee prior to having their names placed on the ballot. During the 2000 campaign, plaintiffs challenged the filing fee, contending that the mandatory nature of the fee, coupled with the absence of an alternative means by which indigent candidates might gain access to the ballot, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The District Court found the mandatory filing fee unconstitutional as applied to John Stith, a candidate for the state legislature who demonstrated his inability to pay the fee without financial hardship. The District Court therefore permanently enjoined the Commonwealth1 from applying the challenged fee structure to Stith or to other similarly situated candidates.

The Commonwealth appealed on the grounds that Stith had ample resources to pay the fee, that the fee was constitutional as applied to Stith, and that, even if the fee was unconstitutional, the District Court's order was unduly broad and vague. The remaining plaintiffs, Thomas Linzey, a candidate for state attorney general, William Donovan, a registered voter supporting Linzey's candidacy, and the Pennsylvania Green Party, of which Stith, Linzey, and Donovan were members, have cross-appealed the District Court's granting of summary judgment against them.

I. Background
A. The Commonwealth's Ballot Access Laws

The Pennsylvania ballot access law requires candidates for various public offices to pay a filing fee in order to have their names placed on the general election ballot. Specifically, the law provides: "Each person filing any nomination petition shall pay for each petition, at the time of filing, a filing fee ... and no nomination petition shall be accepted or filed, unless and until such filing fee is paid. ..." 25 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 2873(b.1) (emphasis added). The fees range from $5 to $200, depending on the office sought. The law applies equally to all candidates regardless of political affiliation. However, it contains no waiver provisions or other means for an indigent candidate to gain access to the ballot. The Commonwealth concedes that it has received "several inquiries" regarding fee waivers but that it keeps no official record of such inquiries and is unable to state the exact number received.

Candidate filing fees for statewide elections are paid when the candidates' nomination petitions are filed with the Secretary of the Commonwealth. 25 Pa. Stat. Ann. §§ 2873(a) & 2873(b.1). The total collected varies by year, averaging approximately $70,000 to $80,000 in even years, and $22,000 to $23,000 in odd years. These funds are used to provide a variety of election-related services, including (1) review of nomination petitions and papers to ensure compliance with applicable requirements, (2) review of documents pertaining to candidate withdrawals and substitutions, (3) creation and distribution of election information for candidates, and (4) consideration of and responses to candidate inquiries. The total cost of such services is estimated to be approximately $46,000 in even years, and $23,000 in odd years. The revenue generated by the filing fees is not, however, expressly earmarked for the funding of these services. It is instead placed into the Commonwealth's general operating fund. See 25 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 2873(b.1).

In addition to paying the required filing fees, candidates must also comply with the statutory signature requirements. Specifically, candidates for statewide office must collect signatures equal to two percent of the largest vote total for any statewide candidate in the last election. 25 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 2911(b). Those seeking other offices must obtain signatures equal to two percent of the largest vote total received by any candidate in their district during the last election. Id. However, these signature requirements are in no way correlated with, or affected by, the applicable filing fee. Thus, although the number of signatures needed to obtain ballot access will naturally vary from one district to another, candidates for positions in the state legislature all pay the same filing fee regardless of the size of their district or the number of signatures required.

B. Factual Background

Plaintiff John Stith sought to have his name placed on the November 2000 ballot as the Green Party candidate for State Representative in the 77th District. As such, he was required to pay a $100 filing fee. To support his allegation that he would suffer financial hardship if compelled to pay the fee, Stith has submitted evidence that he had an adjusted gross income of approximately $35,000 in 1999 and $11,000 in 2000. As of July 2000, his take-home pay was approximately $1,200 per month, compared to his monthly living expenses of $1,073.2 At the time the fee was due, Stith's assets included $50 in campaign funds and a personal bank account balance of $1,500. Among his liabilities were $40,000 in student loans and $3,500 in credit card debt. Stith made a loan of $1,000 of his own money to his campaign. The loan was repaid with campaign funds following the election.3

Plaintiff Thomas Linzey, the Green Party's candidate for Attorney General, was required to pay a filing fee of $200 in order to gain access to the ballot. Like Stith, Linzey alleged that he too "would suffer financial hardship" if forced to pay the applicable fee. Linzey's adjusted gross income for the year 2000 was $4,611. He incurred average monthly living expenses of $380 ($150 for rent, $120 for food, $70 for utilities, $20 in credit card payments, $10 for clothing, and $10 for fuel and maintenance for his housemate's car). Linzey received a $200 check from a campaign supporter but was unable to cash it because the check was made out to the "Linzey for Attorney General Committee," an entity which did not exist.

Plaintiff William Donovan was a student at Pennsylvania State University at the time the complaint was filed. He was registered to vote in the Commonwealth during the November 2000 election and was a supporter of various Green Party candidates, including Linzey. His gross income for the year 2000 was $5,821.68. Donovan no longer lives in Pennsylvania, and there is no evidence in the record to suggest he plans to return at any time in the future.

Plaintiff Pennsylvania Green Party, of which Stith, Linzey, and Donovan are members, is a political body as defined by Pennsylvania law. See 25 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 2831. It alleges that many of its candidates "would suffer financial hardship" as a result of the continued application of the challenged fee structure. The Party asserts that its members, many of whom "are drawn from the less affluent segment of the Pennsylvania community," support their chosen candidates "regardless of their ability to pay the filing fees." Id.

Defendant Kim Pizzingrilli is Secretary of State of the Commonwealth. As such, she is responsible for overseeing various aspects of the Commonwealth's election process, including receipt of candidates' nomination petitions and filing fees. Defendant Richard Filling serves as Commissioner for the Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation and has administrative responsibility for various aspects of the election process, including ballot access. Both defendants were sued in their official capacity.

II. Procedural History

Plaintiffs filed their complaint on July 24, 2000. Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, they seek, inter alia, declaratory and injunctive relief on behalf of a number of individuals and political organizations.4 Specifically, they allege that the statutes establishing the Commonwealth's ballot access scheme violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

On July 25, 2000, the District Court denied plaintiffs' request for a temporary restraining order but then, on July 28, the court granted a preliminary injunction as to Stith and "any otherwise qualified candidate who is unable to pay the cost of the fee." This injunction required the Commonwealth to provide Stith and other similarly situated candidates with "an alternative measure or measures for gaining access to the ballot prior to or at the time of the August 1, 2000 deadline."

As a result of the preliminary injunction, the Commonwealth offered to exempt Stith and Linzey from payment of their respective fees upon their execution of an affidavit declaring that they could not comply with the law without suffering financial hardship. Stith and Linzey both signed affidavits and were placed on the November 2000 ballot without having to pay...

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