Supreme Court faces political cases

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court digs into political bedrock this year with cases that will shape how candidates are chosen and how voters cast ballots.

Three disputes concerning campaigns and elections are on the court's docket, and more of the same could be on the way.

Today, the court takes up a challenge to Washington state's primary election. Two days later, it considers New York state's system for selecting judges. Soon, the justices will hear a challenge to Indiana's requirement that voters show photo identification.

"The intricacies of nominations will be on their minds," said Paul Smith, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who has considerable experience in arguing before the court.

In 2004, Washington state voters approved a new way of selecting candidates by 60 percent: the top two vote-getters in a primary advance to the general election.

The ballot measure, called Initiative 872, allows primary candidates to specify which political parties they "prefer," even if they aren't party members. Consequently, the two candidates in a general election could come from the same party.

"The initiative advances the right of qualified voters to cast their votes effectively by providing broad access to the primary ballot, and by allowing voters to participate in the primary election without regard to their political persuasion," Washington state Attorney General Robert M. McKenna said.

Opponents complain that the real result is to dilute the meaning of political parties.

The Supreme Court struck down California's blanket primary by 7-2 in 2000 as an infringement on First Amendment rights of free association. An appellate court subsequently ended Washington state's blanket primary, as well, but state officials reasoned that they could resurrect it in another form so long as it was billed as nonpartisan.

"It does not nominate party candidates," McKenna argued in a legal filing. "Rather, (it) is a procedure for winnowing candidates for public office to a final list of two."

The New York judicial-selection system is a narrower case. Critics are challenging the state's complicated system for letting party leaders control judicial nominees through conventions, established some 80 years ago during the heyday of Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party political machine that largely controlled New York City politics in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

"What happens is the party leader picks his friends," said Smith, a lawyer with Jenner & Block.

The Indiana voter ID law was passed by a Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by a Republican governor over many Democrats' objections. The constitutional challenge was brought by the state Democratic Party, a county Democratic committee and two Democratic officeholders, and groups including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Proponents say the ID requirement deters fraud. Skeptics see other motives.

"Let's not beat around the bush," Judge Terence Evans of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared in a dissenting opinion. "The Indiana voter photo ID law is a not-too-thinly-veiled attempt to discourage election-day turnout by certain folks believed to skew Democratic."

On the Net:

For state-by-state voter identification requirements, see http://www.electionline.org/Default.aspx?tabid=364.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or 202-383-0006.