Analysis: Miss. ballot deadline dispute lingers

Published 10:43 pm Monday, December 28, 2009

Heard the true story about the guy who wanted on the presidential ballot in Mississippi?

He sends his qualifying papers by taxi to the Mississippi secretary of state’s office. The cab driver arrives at 5 p.m. on the day qualifying is to end. The office is closed. The cabbie leaves the papers on the doorstep.

The filing deadline is unmet, and the candidate’s name is left off the ballot.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The candidate sues.

A year of legal wrangling later and Brian Moore is back at square one. He’s the Socialist Party USA presidential candidate in 2008 who wanted to be on the Mississippi ballot as the Natural Law Party nominee.

U.S. District Judge Tom S. Lee in Mississippi threw out Moore’s lawsuit in March.

A panel of 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans reversed Lee but abstained from reaching its own conclusion. The panel said the election dispute “is based on an interpretation of uncertain state law, which should be resolved at the state level before we consider wading into a constitutional thicket.”

The 5th Circuit panel suggested Lee do the same so the issue could be dealt with in the Mississippi courts.

Moore’s attorney, Mark R. Brown of Columbus, Ohio, says procedurally Moore would file suit in state court, while Lee would put the federal case on hold. Once the Mississippi court ruled, Lee could then reconsider Moore’s challenge.

“We’re happy to be back in court … kind of look at it as a partial victory. We haven’t won the whole game yet,” Brown said.

Brown says such parallel proceedings are not uncommon, especially in cases where a federal appeals court is looking for guidance from a state court before going off and interpreting a state law.

“The key is — and this is Mr. Moore’s position and my position — we need to straighten this out for future elections for whoever it is who runs,” Brown says.

Moore’s argument is that the secretary of state’s office shouldn’t have closed at 5 p.m. on filing day. Moore says Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann should have kept the office open until midnight. He says nothing in state law governing the filing deadline for presidential candidates sets a 5 p.m. deadline.

Moore says Hosemann, by his actions, was enforcing a deadline without legislative direction and devising his own rules for candidates to get on the ballot.

Hosemann is steadfast in his position.

“The secretary of states office is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every business day unless closed for the holidays designated by the Legislature and the governor,” Hosemann said in a statement. “This is as required by Mississippi law. The office will not extend its hours of operation for any election filing unless the Legislature changes the hours.”

In court papers, Hosemann denies Moore’s constitutional rights to political participation were compromised by his office closing at 5 p.m.

Hosemann and Moore agree that some election statutes set deadlines of 5 p.m., just not the one addressing presidential candidate filing.

There, according to the 5th Circuit panel, is the conundrum.

Hosemann, the panel said, “has made it plain that he intends to enforce the 5 p.m. deadline in future elections.”

Hosemann contends it is unlikely that Moore or any other presidential candidate will miss a deadline again.

Lee had found Moore’s arguments to be moot because the election was over and because Moore and other candidates were now on notice that the filing deadline is 5 p.m.

That is beside the point, said the 5th Circuit panel.

The 5th Circuit panel said while the issue is moot for Moore related to the 2008 election, the filing deadline controversy could resurface unless some court clears it up.

“As long as the complained-of deadline is in place, future candidates in Mississippi will be subject to it and will need to conform to its demands. Thus, the effects of the deadline will persist,” the panel said.