Summary of California Democratic Party v. Jones
Citation: 530 U.S. 567 (2000)
Relevant Facts: In 1996, California voters passed a ballot initiative (Proposition 198) that changed state partisan primary elections from closed primaries to blanket primaries. In closed primaries, only members of the party are allowed to cast votes for that party’s primary candidates, whereas in a blanket primary voters are presented with a full list of candidates and may vote for their choice from any party in each contested election. (Note: Blanket primaries are different from open primaries in that open primaries allow voters to choose which party primary to vote in, but they may only choose one, whereas blanket primaries allow voters to choose candidates from any party for each race). The California Democratic Party brought suit against Bill Jones in his capacity as Secretary of State of California. The State Democratic Party, joined by other political parties in the State, claimed that Proposition 198 violated their free association rights under the First Amendment by allowing non-members to dictate important matters for the organization. The district court ruled in favor of Secretary of State Jones, concluding that any burden on associational rights was not severe and justified by substantial state interests, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.
Issue: Does the voter initiative at issue, which converted California primary elections from closed primaries to blanket primaries, violate the free association rights of political parties by forcing such organizations to accept representatives chosen by non-members?
Holding: Yes, forcing political parties to accept nominees and resulting positions chosen by non-members-potentially rivals- violates the free association rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Reasoning: Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court. At the outset, the majority noted the important role for states in regulating elections- including primary elections. However, the Court noted that primary elections are not a wholly public undertaking, and while they serve to provide candidates for general elections, they also facilitate operations for groups that freely associate. The First Amendment protects the right to freely associate with those of similar beliefs, just as it protects the right to one’s own political opinion. The right to associate extends to protect the right to exclude, and nowhere is that right more important as applied to political parties than in the candidate selection process. Among other things, candidates selected by the parties have a voice in creating the party platform and represent the parties in general elections. The likely outcome of the proposition here is forced association with candidates selected by voters outside of party membership. The heavy burden on association rights guaranteed by the First Amendment justifies application of strict scrutiny, and the blanket primary system adopted can only stand, therefore, if narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest. In applying strict scrutiny, the Court considered each of seven factors proffered by the State to justify the blanket primaries based on compelling State interests. California argued that blanket primaries produced candidates that better represented the electorate, expanded candidate debates beyond partisan concerns, afforded disenfranchised voters a more meaningful stake in primary elections, promoted fairness, provided for expanded voter choice, increased voter participation, and protected privacy. The majority did not find any of these asserted justifications compelling. Concluding, Justice Scalia pointed out that the selection of leaders is crucial part- indeed a basic function- of any organization, including political parties. The blanket primary scheme here both severely curtailed that right and was unnecessary in light of no compelling purpose to justify the new system.
Concurrence: Justice Kennedy concurred, writing separately, pointed out that the State was correct in asserting the importance of elections and broad voter participation. Justice Kennedy was mindful of the partisanship the State sought to counteract, having candidly admitted the purpose of the Proposition was to alter rigid party ideology, but agreed with the majority the asserted aims were outweighed by important First Amendment rights. Justice Kennedy also cautioned against the State’s preferred remedy for protecting associational rights: allowing parties to spend money to support the candidate of their choice. Here argued that his prior positions, objecting to excessive regulation of campaign spending, were relevant here as were those seeking to further regulate campaign finance ever successful, the State would possess the means to control candidate selection and candidate support.
Dissent: Justice Stevens dissented, joined by Justice Ginsburg as to Part I only. Justice Stevens first argued that while parties should be free to exclude non-members from private affairs of the party, primary elections are not wholly private- instead affording parties the opportunity to participate in state elections. He found little support for the majority’s holding in the First Amendment right to associate; pointing out that the Court relied on the implied protection to not associate- a protection that did not extend to dictating the manner of state-run elections. The real issue, Justice Stevens contended, is State authority to control the nature of primary elections, a power undiminished by asserted First Amendment rights. In Part II, Justice Stevens dealt with an issue regarding the Elections Clause, arguing that election systems selected by initiative may not be constitutional as applied to elections for federal office, as the Elections Clause affords State legislatures the exclusive right to determine the nature of elections. As the issue was neither raised by the parties nor discussed below, Justice Stevens merely pointed out that the issue may be worthy of future consideration. Concluding, Justice Stevens lamented that the majority’s holding invalidated the primary election system of several states and cast doubt on systems utilized by a majority of the states.
Conclusion: Blanket primaries violate the free association rights of political parties by forcing them to associate with candidates that have not been selected, exclusively, by the party membership.