A federal appeals court Tuesday struck down California's turn-of-the-century law preventing political parties from endorsing candidates in primary elections, calling it "paternalism that is inconsistent with the First Amendment."
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals also overturned state laws from the same period that dictate parties' internal structure, including the membership and size of party central committees and the terms of office of their leaders.
"The California statutes burden the parties' right to govern themselves as they think best," said Judge William Norris, writing for a unanimous three-member panel. ". . . A state's (legitimate) interest is in orderly elections, not orderly parties."
He also noted that the inability of the official Democratic committees to take stands in primaries left them powerless in 1980 when Ku Klux Klan leader Tom Metzger won a Democratic congressional primary in a heavily Republican San Diego County district. Democratic Party groups also have been barred by law in recent primaries from publicly disavowing candidates backed by rightist Lyndon LaRouche.
"The potential impact of this is enormous," said California Democratic Party Chairman Peter D. Kelly. "The right of the party to endorse candidates in primaries was taken away 80 years ago to emasculate us. Now we have it back in federal and statewide elections and I would expect new lawsuits to seek that right at the local level."
As for how the party might now deal with candidates who describe themselves as Democrats but are at odds with basic party philosophy, Kelly said the ruling now frees the party "to tell candidates if you don't get 5% or 10% or the votes at a state convention you cannot call yourself a Democrat on the ballot."
"This decision will certainly revitalize political parties in California," said Cedric Chao, a lawyer for a group of local Democratic central committees that were among the challengers of the law.
Others included the San Francisco Republican Central Committee, the statewide Libertarian Party and individual political activists; the state Democratic Party also endorsed the suit.
The laws were declared unconstitutional by U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel in 1984, but have remained in effect during the state's appeal.
Chao said it would be up to individual parties to decide whether to endorse candidates in the June, 1988, primary elections. He said the Democratic Party has formed a committee to work on procedures for possible endorsements.
The state could again appeal to the Supreme Court. Deputy Atty. Gen. Geoffrey Graybill, the state's lawyer, and Tony Miller, chief deputy to Secretary of State March Fong Eu, the state's chief elections officer, both declined comment.
The ruling also could affect Proposition 49, the ballot measure approved by state voters in June, 1986, that prohibited parties from endorsing candidates in nonpartisan local government and judicial elections.
The court did not address that issue. But Chao said Proposition 49's "continuing vitality is subject to great doubt," based on the court's reasoning.
The laws struck down date from California's Progressive era of the 1910s, when legislators sought to weaken party structures that were controlled by interests such as the Southern Pacific Railroad.