Pennsylvania Supreme Court expedites hearing on spurious Cruz eligibility claim

Recently, a state court in Pennsylvania found that Ted Cruz is a natural born citizen and entitled to ballot access. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has expediting briefing in the case. The docket reflects that the appellant has a couple of amicus briefs on his side: one by Einer Elhauge at Harvard Law, another by Mary Brigid McManamon at Widener Law.

I use the adjective "spurious" in the title of this post not because I believe that it's obvious that Mr. Cruz is a natural born citizen; indeed, I've conceded that the question is closer than one may expect, and I have my own inclinations, but I've found Michael Ramsey's perspective to be the most persuasive in concluding that he is eligible.

Instead, it is because there is simply no requirement under Pennsylvania law that a citizen be "eligible" to obtain ballot access. Indeed, the very opposite is true.

I've written, extensively, about this very basic error in these qualifications disputes. There is no free-standing ability for courts to scrutinize qualifications of candidates for president. Instead, it is reserved to the states to administer ballot access. States can decide whether to list a candidate, or not list a candidate. One must refer to state law. To be sure, there is a concern that a state may list a candidate ineligible for office--but there is no federal right to keep an unqualified candidate off the ballot. Instead, such decisions reside in state law.

This is in part because there are many who may evaluate the qualifications of a candidate--voters, being one of them! But presidential electors can also decide whether a candidate is eligible or not, and decide not to vote for him. Indeed, many (but not all!) decided that Horace Greeley was no longer eligible after he died in 1872 after the election and cast votes for others.

The state court in Pennsylvania was in grave error when it concluded otherwise: "the Constitution does not vest the Electoral College with power to determine the eligibility of aPresidential candidate since it only charges the members of the Electoral College to select acandidate for President and then transmit their votes to the nation's 'seat of government.'" What does the power to "select" mean if it does not include the discretion to decide whether someone is fit for office--including, whether someone is eligible for office?

And the Court was wrong to conclude that Congress lacks this power, too: "no Constitutional provision places such power in Congress to determine Presidential eligibility. Moreover, other than setting forth the bare argument, the Candidate offers no further support for the contrary proposition."

Well, apart from my Indiana Law Journal article extensively discussing this precise point, one could easily cite the instance of Congress refusing to count electoral votes cast for Horace Greeley in 1873 because it believed he was not eligible to serve as president; or Congress's resolution in 2008 decreeing that John McCain was a natural born citizen, presumably because it believed it had the power to scrutinize qualifications in its power, likely under the subsequent language of the Counting Clause of the Twentieth Amendment, at the very least.

But this is essentially because the Pennsylvania state court confused the political question doctrine--that a question is exclusively reserved to another branch--with this issue. That is, it may not be a political question; but, it is certainly the case that many other political actors hold the power simultaneously. That, I think, is good reason to give pause.

It is further reason to give pause when one consider whether any cause of action exists. After all, what right is there to remove someone from the ballot? That is an operation of state law--of state ballot access law, in particular. And Pennyslvania's election code and election practice expressly display how spurious this claim against Mr. Cruz is.

Many states, understandably, do not want to engage in much scrutinize of the qualifications for these offices--let voters, electors, and Congress sort it out, rather than election officials and courts. And Pennsylvania law expressly disclaims any requirement that presidential candidates declare they are eligible.

Consider Section 2870 of the election code: candidates for office typically must file a nomination petition with an affidavit stating "that he is eligible for such office." But the end of the section provides something quite contrary for presidential candidates: "In the case of a candidate for nomination as President of the United States, it shall not be necessary for such candidate to file the affidavit required in this section to be filed by candidates, but the post-office address of such candidate shall be stated in such nomination petition." (Emphasis added.)

Pennsylvania leaves it other actors--not election officials, and, by proxy, not courts reviewing the decisions of election officials--to scrutinize qualifications.

Historical practice supports this view. In 1972, for instance, Linda Jenness and Andrew Pulley, both under 35 years of age, appeared on the Pennsylvania ballot under the Socialist Workers Party presidential ticket. Pennsylvania recorded thousands of votes cast for them. Even though both were ineligible.

These nuanced points are often lost in these eligibility cases. The salacious story of the merits--born in Canada!--or the more routine standing doctrine issues often garner the greatest attention. But this claim has no merit simply because Pennsylvania law allows anyone on the ballot, without any scrutiny of qualifications. The question of eligibility is reserved to others in Pennsylvania--not election officials, and certainly not courts.