The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled Wednesday that Virginia’s Incumbent Protection Act violates the First Amendment
The court of appeals held that the act infringes on political parties’ First Amendment rights to free association because it limits their ability to select candidates for office as they deem appropriate.
Virginia generally allows political parties to nominate candidates with considerable discretion. The duly constituted authorities of any political party may determine the method by which their candidates will be selected. For instance, the Republican Party of Virginia utilizes a primary, a party canvass, a convention and a mass meeting to select candidates. However, the court held that Subsection 24.2-509(B) unfairly empowered a lone incumbent candidate to choose the method of selection that they prefer, circumventing the party’s preferred method of selection. As a result of this determination the entirety of § 24.2-509(B) was deemed unconstitutional because it presents a severe burden on the political party, by placing the discretion of a single member, who is already “blessed with myriad de facto advantages in the electoral arena,” above the discretion of the entire party.
Other states have enacted laws that place restrictions on political parties, such as limiting their ability to choose a nominee by prohibiting the selection of individuals that already appeared elsewhere on the ballot, or by requiring a specific party to only allow its registered members to participate in it’s primary process. However, such laws are not considered unconstitutional because they do not impose a “severe burden” on the parties’ associations. These laws are given deference by the court, especially when warranted by the need “to reduce election- and campaign related disorder.”
Judge Wilkinson wrote in the unanimous opinion that the First Amendment “promises Americans the right not just to proclaim a political vision but to join with their compatriots and actually advance that vision.” Defending the court’s determination Wilkerson states, “[p]erhaps no function of a party is more central to its purpose than the selection of candidates for office.” It is for this reason the court determined the burden on the party so severe that the law must be considered unconstitutional and therefore affirmed the decision of the district court.