Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Court: Party Committee Has Right to Oust Member
By Kenneth Ofgang , Staff Writer
The First Amendment protects a political party county central committee’s right to oust a member for reasons specified in the committee’s own bylaws, the Court of Appeal for this district has ruled.
Div. Six yesterday ordered publication of a June 3 opinion in which it affirmed San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Charles Crandall’s order denying a petition seeking to reinstate Gail Wilson’s membership on the San Luis Obispo Democratic central committee.
Wilson was removed from the committee at its February 2007 meeting by a vote of 22-10, after members found that she had disrupted the committee’s work by filing a baseless complaint accusing the committee and its officials of violating election laws.
In her petition for writ of mandate and prohibition, she alleged that the committee had deprived her of free speech and due process, had violated the Elections Code by removing her on grounds not specified in the code, and had deprived her of her common law right of fair procedure.
She also sought to prohibit the committee from expanding its membership beyond those persons entitled to serve under the code.
The Elections Code provides that the central committee is to consist of 20 to 25 members elected by supervisor district, plus certain recent party nominees to state and federal office. The committee’s bylaws provide that certain state party officials living in the county, as well as the presidents of volunteer Democratic clubs chartered by the committee, shall be ex-officio members.
Wilson, a retired chemistry teacher, filed for re-election to the committee at the 2006 primary election, and earned a two-year term when the number of candidates did not exceed the number of seats to which her district was entitled.
Prior to the 2006 general election, Wilson filed her complaint with the District Attorney’s Office. As she described it later in her petition, she accused the committee treasurer, San Luis Obispo attorney Stewart Jenkins, of soliciting funds without the party’s written consent, in violation of Sec. 20201 of the code, although the committee’s description of the ensuing investigation was somewhat broader.
The District Attorney’s Office found no cause to take action, but party officials expressed bitterness at Wilson for forcing them to put aside political work so close to an election in order to respond to the investigation. Citing a bylaws provision allowing removal of a member for failing “to contribute to the substantial work of the committee,” 22 members signed a motion calling for Wilson’s dismissal.
Following a meeting at which members, including Wilson, were allowed to speak for or against removal, the committee took its vote and Wilson was ousted. She then filed her Superior Court action, seeking an order reinstating her to membership and removing all non-statutory ex-officio members from the committee.
Wilson was elected to the committee again last year.
Justice Kenneth Yegan, writing for the Court of Appeal, acknowledged that Wilson’s request for reinstatement was technically moot. But since she had been elected to the committee again, the justice said, the dispute was likely to recur, justifying the panel’s decision to hear the appeal on its merits.
Yegan cited Eu v. San Francisco County Democratic Central Committee (1989) 489 U.S. 214, which held that political parties have a constitutional right to govern their internal affairs, subject to state intervention only to the extent “necessary to ensure that elections are fair and honest.”
The decision struck down a number of statutory provisions that had constrained the state Democratic Central Committee, including those dictating how the committee was to be constituted and how long its chairperson could serve, and requiring that the chair be rotated between the northern and southern parts of the state.
The principles of Eu allowseach party committee to determine the grounds for removal of a member, Yegan said, rejecting the contention that the public interest requires uniform removal standards.
The justice distinguished Green Party of California v. Jones (1995) 31 Cal.App.4th 747, in which the court upheld the secretary of state’s refusal to implement two rules adopted by the Green Party.
One rule would have allowed party leaders to remove an office from the primary ballot, so that the party would not contest the general election, and the other would have allowed primary voters to vote for “none of the above” and provided that the party would not have a general election candidate for the particular office if “none of the above” got the most votes.
Those rules conflicted with code sections allowing any qualified party member to seek the party’s nomination in a primary, and limiting voters’ choices in the primary to actual candidates whose names are on the ballot or who have qualified to receive write-in votes. The difference between those and the rules challenged by Wilson, Yegan explained, is that the Green Party rules would have affected election outcomes and not merely internal party affairs.
The justice similarly distinguished Supreme Court cases from the segregation era, holding that whites-only party primaries violated the Fifteenth Amendment. Those rules imported unconstitutionally discriminatory state policies into the nominations process, which is not what occurred in Wilson’s case, Yegan said.
Yegan went on to say that the party central committee is not a state actor, so it does not have to honor constitutional guarantees of free speech or due process. To the extent that it may owe members a common law right of fair procedure, this was satisfied in Wilson’s case, because she was given due notice of the charges against her and she and her supporters were allowed to speak prior to the vote, the justice said.
The justice also concluded that the bylaw expanding committee membership was valid under Eu.
The case is Wilson v. San Luis Obispo County Central Committee, 09 S.O.S. 3986.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company