That’s the stated reason why SCOTX overturned the earlier decision that booted three Green Party candidates off the ballot.
The Texas Supreme Court in a new opinion Friday explained its decision to reinstate to the November ballot Green Party candidates who did not pay their filing fees, saying lower courts denied them the chance to resolve the issue while there was still time under the law.
Justices acknowledged the strain that adding last-minute candidates may put on county elections officials, who were just days away from sending out their first rounds of ballots before the court’s order was announced on Tuesday. The high court did not publish its opinion in the matter until Friday.
“We recognize that changes to the ballot at this late point in the process will require extra time and resources to be expended by our local election officials,” the opinion read. “But a candidate’s access to the ballot is an important value to our democracy.”
In the unsigned opinion handed down Friday, justices said Democrats challenging the validity of Green Party candidates failed to prove that the election law requires party chairs to declare candidates ineligible when they don’t pay filing fees, and that the 2019 law doesn’t include a deadline for paying them.
Justices also say the Third Court of Appeals should have given Green Party candidates a chance to pay their fees before declaring ineligible and tossed from the ballot.
See here and here for the background. The opinion is here, and Michael Hurta continues his Twitter thread on this here, with some replies from me at the end. We’re going to need to delve into the opinion, because it’s more nuanced than what this story gives, and also clarifies something else that I hadn’t realized I was confused about.
First, in stating that RRC candidate Chrysta Castañeda “failed to prove the Election Code clearly spelled out the duty of the co-chairs to declare the Green Party candidates ineligible for their failure to pay the filing fee”, SCOTX clears up something from the legal challenge to the filing fees that I had missed.
The court explained that section 141.041 does not set a deadline for compliance but that the requirements apply only to the candidates actually nominated at a party’s nominating convention generally held in March or April of the election year. Id. at ___. Candidates who intend to seek a nomination at a convention must file a notarized application in December before the convention. Id. at ___ (citing TEX. ELEC. CODE §§ 141.031, 172.023(a), 181.031–.033). The advisory, by requiring payment of the filing fee before the nominating convention, expanded the requirements in 141.041 from all nominated candidates to all candidates seeking nomination. Id. at ___. The court ultimately held that payment of the filing fee under section 141.041 was still required, but the court affirmed the trial court’s order temporarily enjoining the Secretary of State from refusing to certify third-party nominees on the grounds that the nominees did not pay a filing fee at the time of filing. Id. at ___.
We agree with the Fourteenth Court of Appeals that under section 141.041 only a convention-nominated candidate is required to pay the filing fee. See TEX. ELEC. CODE §141.041(a) (“[A] candidate who is nominated by convention . . . must pay a filing fee . . . .”). Therefore, we also agree that the Secretary of State’s advisory requiring payment of the filing fee at the time of filing an application is not required by, and indeed conflicts with, the Election Code. See id. Section 141.041 does not include a deadline for compliance, but as we explained in In re Francis, when an Election Code provision does not provide explicit guidance, we apply a presumption against removing parties from the ballot. 186 S.W.3d at 542.
I had not understood the distinction between mandating that all candidates who compete for the nomination must pay the fee and just mandating that the candidates who actually receive the nomination must pay it. I’m fine with that. The key to the decision here is the question about deadlines, and how much time the Green Party and its candidates were supposed to have to fix their failure to pay these fees (which as we know they claim are unconstitutional).
Castañeda presented a public record to the co-chairs showing that as of August 17, the Green Party candidates had not paid the filing fee. As previously noted, section 141.041 requires the filing fee but contains no deadline for its payment, see TEX. ELEC. CODE § 141.041, and the only potential applicable deadline in the Secretary of State’s election advisory conflicts with that provision. Hughs, ___ S.W.3d at ___. Strictly construing these sections against ineligibility, we disagree that the public document demonstrating that the Green Party candidates had not paid the filing fee as of August 17 conclusively established that they were ineligible. To be “eligible to be placed on the ballot,” the Green Party Candidates were required to pay the filing fee or file signature petitions. TEX. ELEC. CODE § 141.041 (emphasis added). The co-chairs did not have a ministerial statutory duty to declare the candidates ineligible, as the law did not clearly spell out their duty on August 17 when the candidates had not yet paid the filing fee such that nothing was left to the exercise of their discretion. See In re Williams, 470 S.W.3d at 821.
The court of appeals ordered the co-chairs to declare the Green Party candidates ineligible and take necessary steps to ensure their names did not appear on the ballot. ___ S.W.3d at ___. But the court did not address a deadline for payment, nor did it otherwise allow for payment of the fee. And under In re Francis, an opportunity to cure should be provided when a candidate could still comply with Election Code requirements. 186 S.W.3d at 541–42 (noting that an opportunity to cure complies with the purposes of the Election Code and avoids potential constitutional problems that “might be implicated if access to the ballot was unnecessarily restricted”). “The public interest is best served when public offices are decided by fair and vigorous elections, not technicalities leading to default.” Id. at 542. In the absence of recognizing a deadline for paying the filing fee or giving the candidates an opportunity to comply, the court of appeals erred in ordering the Green Party candidates removed from the ballot on August 19.
Emphasis in the original. The opinion cited an earlier case of a candidate who had turned in petition signatures to be on a ballot but failed to correctly fill out all the petition pages with information about the office he sought, and was tossed from the ballot as a result. On appeal, he was restored on the grounds that he should have been given the chance to fix the error before having the axe fall on him. Much as I dislike this opinion, I agree with that principle, and I don’t have a problem with it being applied here, though of course we can argue about what a reasonable amount of time should be to allow for such a fix to be applied. SCOTX left that question open, so if the filing fees are still in place in 2022 and the Libertarians and Greens are still resisting it, look for some judges to have to determine what sort of schedule should be applied to non-fee-payers, in an attempt to follow this precedent.
As I said, I don’t like this decision, but I can accept it. It didn’t immediately make me want to crawl through the Internet and slap someone. But let’s be clear about something, if SCOTX is going to appeal to higher principles in cases like this, which just happen to also align with the desires of the Republican Party, then I’d like to see some evidence that they will err on the side of the voters in a case that doesn’t align with the GOP. Like, say, the Harris County mail ballot applications case. What are you going to do with that one, folks? And please note, the clock is ticking. A decision rendered for Chris Hollins in late October doesn’t exactly mean anything. Let’s see where the SCOTX justices really stand.