Bullock v. Carter 8212 128

Decision Date24 February 1972
Docket NumberNo. 70,70
Citation92 S.Ct. 849,405 U.S. 134,31 L.Ed.2d 92
PartiesBob BULLOCK et al., Appellants, v. Van Phillip CARTER et al. —128
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Appellees who sought to become candidates for local office in the Texas Democratic primary election challenged in the District Court the validity of the Texas statutory scheme which, without write-in or other alternative provisions, requires payment of fees ranging as high as $8,900. Appellees claimed that they were unable to pay the required fees and were therefore barred from running. Under the Texas statute, the party committee estimates the total cost of the primary and apportions it among candidates according to its judgment of what is 'just and equitable,' in light of 'the importance, emolument, and term of office.' The fees for local candidates tend appreciably to exceed those for statewide candidates. Following a hearing, the District Court declared the fee system invalid and enjoined its enforcement. Appellants contend that the filing fees are necessary both to regulate the primary ballot and to finance elections. Held: The Texas primary election filing-fee system contravenes the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 140—149.

(a) Since the Texas statute imposes filing fees of such magnitude that numerous qualified candidates are precluded from filing, it therefore falls with unequal weight on candidates and voters according to their ability to pay the fees, it must be 'closely scrutinized' and can be sustained only if it is reasonably necessary to accomplish a legitimate state objective and not merely because it has some rational basis. Pp. 140—144.

(b) Although a State has an interest in regulating the number of candidates on the ballot and eliminating those who are spurious, it cannot attain these objectives by arbitrary means such as those called for by the Texas statute, which eliminates legitimate potential candidates, like those involved here, who cannot afford the filing fees. Pp. 144—147.

(c) The apportionment of costs among candidates is not the only means available to finance primary elections, and the State can identify certain bodies as political parties entitled to sponsorship if the State itself finances the primaries, as it does general elections, both of which are important parts of the democratic process. Pp. 147—149.

Carter v. Dies, D.C., 321 F.Supp. 1358, affirmed.

John F. Morehead, Plainview, Tex., and Pat Bailey, Austin, Tex., for appellants.

A. L. Crouch, Fort Worth, Tex., and Joseph A. Calamia, El Paso, Tex., for appellees.

Mr. Chief Justice BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

Under Texas law, a candidate must pay a filing fee as a condition to having his name placed on the ballot in a primary election.1 The constitutionality of the Texas filing-fee system is the subject of this appeal from the judgment of a three-judge District Court.

Appellee Pate met all qualifications to be a candidate in the May 2, 1970, Democratic primary for the office of County Commissioner of Precinct Four for El Paso County, except that he was unable to pay the $1,424.60 assessment required of candidates in that pri- mary. Appellee Wischkaemper sought to be placed on the Democratic primary ballot as a candidate for County Judge in Tarrant County, but he was unable to pay the $6,300 assessment for candidacy for that office. Appellee Carter wished to be a Democratic candidate for Commissioner of the General Land Office; his application was not accompanied by the required $1,000 filing fee.2

After being denied places on the Democratic primary ballots in their respective counties, these appellees instituted separate actions in the District Court challenging the validity of the Texas filing-fee system. Their actions were consolidated, and a three-judge District Court was convened pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 2281 and 2284. Appellee Jenkins was permitted to intervene as a voter on his claimed desire to vote for Wischkaemper, and appellee Guzman and others were permitted to intervene as voters desiring to cast their ballots for Pate. On April 3, 1970, the District Court ordered that Wischkaemper and Pate be permitted to participate in the primary conducted on May 2, 1970, without prepayment of filing fees.3 Following a hearing on the merits, the three-judge court declared the Texas filing-fee scheme unconstitutional and enjoined its enforcement.4 321 F.Supp. 1358 (N.D.Tex.1970). A direct appeal was taken under 28 U.S.C. § 1253, and we noted probable jurisdiction. Dies v. Carter, 403 U.S. 904, 91 S.Ct. 2208, 29 L.Ed.2d 679.

Under the Texas statute, payment of the filing fee is an absolute prerequisite to a candidate's participation in a primary election. There is no alternative procedure by which a potential candidate who is unable to pay the fee can get on the primary ballot by way of petitioning voters,5 and write-in votes are not permitted in primary elections for public office.6 Any person who is willing and able to pay the filing fee and who meets the basic eligibility requirements for holding the office sought can run in a primary.

Candidates for most district, county, and precinct offices must pay their filing fee to the county executive committee of the political party conducting the pri- mary; the committee also determines the amount of the fee. The party committee must make an estimate of the total cost of the primary and apportion it among the various candidates 'as in their judgment is just and equitable.' 7 The committee's judgment is to be guided by 'the importance, emolument, and term of office for which the nomination is to be made.'8 In counties with populations of one million or more, candidates for offices of two-year terms can be assessed up to 10% of their aggregate annual salary, and candidates for offices of four-year terms can be assessed up to 15% of their aggregate annual salary.9 In smaller counties there are no such percentage limitations.10

The record shows that the fees required of the candidates in this case are far from exceptional in their magnitude.11 The size of the filing fees is plainly a natural consequence of a statutory system that places the burden of financing primary elections on candidates rather than on the governmental unit, and that imposes a particularly heavy burden on candidates for local office. The filing fees required of candidates seeking nomination for state offices and offices involving statewide primaries are more closely regulated by statute and tend to be appreciably smaller. The filing fees for candidates for State Representative range from $150 to $600, depending on the population of the county from which nomination is sought.12 Candidates for State Senator are subject to a maximum assessment of $1,000.13

Candidates for nominations requiring statewide primaries, including candidates for Governor and United States Senator, must pay a filing fee of $1,000 to the chairman of the state executive committee of the party conducting the primary.14 Candidates for the State Board of Education have a fixed filing fee of $50.15


The filing-fee requirement is limited to party primary elections, but the mechanism of such elections is the creature of state legislative choice and hence is 'state action' within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. Gray v. Sanders, 372 U.S. 368, 83 S.Ct. 801, 9 L.Ed.2d 821 (1963); Nixon v. Herndon, 273 U.S. 536, 47 S.Ct. 446, 71 L.Ed. 759 (1927).16 Although we have emphasized on numerous occasions the breadth of power enjoyed by the States in determining voter qualifications and the manner of elections, this power must be exercised in a manner consistent with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. See, e.g., Williams v. Rhodes, 393 U.S. 23, 89 S.Ct. 5, 21 L.Ed.2d 24 (1968); Evans v. Cornman, 398 U.S. 419, 90 S.Ct. 1752, 26 L.Ed.2d 370 (1970); Carrington v. Rash, 380 U.S. 89, 85 S.Ct. 775, 13 L.Ed.2d 675 (1965). The question presented in this case is whether a state law that prevents potential candidates for public office from seeking the nomination of their party due to their inability to pay a portion of the cost of conducting the primary election is state action that unlawfully discriminates against the candidates so excluded or the voters who wish to support them.17

The threshold question to be resolved is whether the filing-fee system should be sustained if it can be shown to have some rational basis,18 or whether it must withstand a more rigid stancard of review.

In Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, 383 U.S. 663, 86 S.Ct. 1079, 16 L.Ed.2d 169 (1966), the Court held that Virginia's imposition of an annual poll tax not exceeding $1.50 on residents over the age of 21 was a denial of equal protection. Subjecting the Virginia poll tax to close scrutiny, the Court concluded that the placing of even a minimal price on the exercise of the right to vote constituted an invidious discrimination. The problem presented by candidate filing fees is not the same, of course, and we must determine whether the strict standard of review of the Harper case should be applied.

The initial and direct impact of filing fees is felt by aspirants for office, rather than voters, and the Court has not heretofore attached such fundamental status to candidacy as to invoke a rigorous standard of review.19 However, the rights of voters and the rights of candidates do not lend themselves to neat separation; laws that affect candidates always have at least some theoretical, correlative effect on voters. Of course, not every limitation or incidental burden on the exercise of voting rights is subject to a stringent standard of review. McDonald v. Board of Election, 394 U.S. 802, 89 S.Ct. 1404, 22 L.Ed.2d 739 (1969). Texas does not place a condition on the exercise of the right to vote,20 nor does it quantitatively dilute votes that have been cast.21 Rather, the Texas system creates barriers to candidate access to the primary...

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