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PETITION TO SET ASIDE NOMINATION JAMES F. LA VERDI (06/07/75)

SUPREME COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA


decided: June 7, 1975.

IN RE PETITION TO SET ASIDE NOMINATION OF JAMES F. LA VERDI, JR. APPEAL OF JAMES F. LA VERDI, JR.

COUNSEL

Blythe H. Evans, Jr., Wilkes-Barre, for appellant.

Joseph F. Castellino, Pittston, for appellee.

Jones, C. J., and Eagen, O'Brien, Roberts, Pomeroy, Nix and Manderino, JJ. Manderino, J., filed a dissenting opinion in which Eagen and Pomeroy, JJ., join.

Author: Roberts

[ 462 Pa. Page 372]

OPINION OF THE COURT

This case requires us to determine how many signatures must be obtained on a nomination petition of a candidate for director of a school district containing an entire city. We conclude that, under the provisions of section 912 of the Election Code,*fn1 candidates from such districts,

[ 462 Pa. Page 373]

    like all other candidates for an "office to be voted for by the electors of an entire city," must obtain 100 valid signatures to secure a place on the ballot.

On March 10, 1975, appellant James La Verdi, Jr., filed a nomination petition to have his name placed on the Republican Party primary ballot as a candidate for the office of School Director of the Pittstown Area School District. The petition, which was submitted on the standard form with spaces for 112 names, contained 106 signatures. Five days later, appellees, all candidates for either the Democratic or Republican nomination for school director, filed a petition in the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas alleging that nine of the signatures on appellant's petition were invalid and seeking to have the nomination petition set aside because it contained fewer than 100 valid signatures.*fn2

On March 21, 1975, the court held a hearing on appellees' petition. At the hearing, appellant did not dispute that he had fewer than 100 valid signatures on his petition; he instead contended that under section 912 only ten signatures were required. Six days later, the court filed an opinion and order holding that 100 signatures were required on the petition and therefore setting aside appellant's

[ 462 Pa. Page 374]

    petition. Appellant filed post-hearing motions which were apparently denied. This appeal ensued.*fn3 Because of the need for expeditious decision in this appeal, having reached our resolution of the issue, we filed an order on April 28, 1975, affirming the order of the hearing court and noting that opinions would follow.

I.

Resolution of this appeal required interpretation of section 912(d) which provides:

"If for the office of Representative in the General Assembly, or for the office of member of the State committee, or an office to be voted for by the electors of the entire county, or an office to be voted for by the electors of an entire city, or for the office of district councilman in a city of the first class, by at least one hundred registered and enrolled members of the proper party, except for the office of magistrate in cities of the first class, in which case it must be signed by at least three thousand registered and enrolled members of the proper party."

Election Code § 912(d) 25 P.S. § 2872 (1963).

The Pittstown Area School District embraces a geographical area which includes the entire city of Pittstown as well as surrounding communities. The court of common pleas concluded that, because school directors of this district are voted for by the electors of the entire city of Pittstown, the number of signatures required was 100 as provided under subsection (d). Appellant, however, contends that school directors are not specifically mentioned in section 912, and that therefore nominations for that office fall into the residuary clause, subsection (f),*fn4 and that only 10 signatures are required.

[ 462 Pa. Page 375]

Section 912(d) is a legislative mandate that candidates seeking nomination for an office elected by the voters of "an entire city" demonstrate a showing of support for their candidacy by obtaining 100 valid signatures of qualified voters before they are given a place on the primary ballot. It follows that where a governmental unit contains not only "an entire city" but additional areas as well, as in the present case, a candidate seeking an office elected by the voters of that unit must likewise obtain 100 signatures on his petition.

Appellant, however, argues that school directors were not intended to come within the terms of subsection (d) at all, regardless of the nature of the political unit whose voters elect them. This proposed construction distorts the intent of the Legislature clearly expressed in the Election Code. The definitional section of the Code provides:

"The words 'public office' shall included every public office to be filled by sons can be elected by a vote of the electors under the laws of this State."

Election Code § 102(s), 25 P.S. § 2602(s) (1963). Thus when the Legislature spoke in section 912(d) of "an office to be voted for by the electors of an entire city," it included every public office to be filled by the voters of that governmental unit.

That section 912(d) makes no mention of school directors has, of course, no bearing on this issue. Subsection (d) also makes no reference to mayors, city councilmen, or any other official elected by the voters of a city. However, these offices, because they are "voted for by the electors of an entire city," are subject to the 100 signature requirement of subsection (d). The same reasoning leads us to conclude that school directors of districts containing "an entire city" are also subject to the requirements of subsection (d).

[ 462 Pa. Page 376]

We have previously recognized that "the avoidance of a cluttered ballot and the possible necessity of using paper ballots rather than voting machines [is] a legitimate and reasonable goal of public policy." Shankey v. Staisey, 436 Pa. 65, 71, 257 A.2d 897, 899-900 (1969), cert. denied, 396 U.S. 1038, 90 S.Ct. 684, 24 L.Ed.2d 682 (1970). By placing a reasonable limitation upon access to a position on the ballot, the Legislature attempted to provide the voter with an understandable ballot and to assure that the qualifications and public support of a candidate, and not the position of his name on the ballot, would be the most important factor in the success or failure of a candidate.

The Supreme Court of the United States has recognized the importance of this policy:

"A procedure inviting or permitting every citizen to present himself to the voters on the ballot without some means of measuring the seriousness of the desire and motivation would make rational voter choices more difficult because of the size of the ballot and hence tend to impede the electoral process. . . .

"That 'laundry list' ballots discourage voter participation and confuse and frustrate those who do participate is too obvious to call for extended discussion. . . . Rational results within the framework of our system are not likely to be reached if the ballot for a single office must list a dozen or more aspirants who are relatively unknown or have no prospects of success."

Lubin v. Panish, 415 U.S. 709, 715, 94 S.Ct. 1315, 1319-20, 39 L.Ed.2d 702 (1974).

"There is surely an important state interest in requiring some preliminary showing of a significant modicum of support before printing the name of a political organization's candidate on the ballot -- the interest, if no other, in avoiding confusion, deception,

[ 462 Pa. Page 377]

    and even frustration of the democratic process at the general election."

Jenness v. Forts, 403 U.S. 431, 442, 91 S.Ct. 1970, 1976, 29 L.Ed.2d 554 (1971).

All the reasons that led the Legislature to conclude that effectuating this policy of providing the voter with an understandable ballot required that, where the voters of an entire city are to elect an official, candidates must acquire 100 signatures apply equally to city officials and school directors. School directors have taxing powers equal to, if not greater than, those of city councilmen; their educational duties are as vital to the well-being of the community as are the governmental responsibilities of elected city officials. It is therefore highly improbable that the Legislature intended that candidates for school director could obtain a place on the ballot with only one-tenth the signatures required of candidates for the offices of a city included within the school district. We therefore hold that the court of common pleas correctly determined that appellant's petition must be set aside for failure to secure the required 100 signatures.

This holding is in accord with a long-standing interpretation of this section. Over 35 years ago, the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas held that a candidate for director of a school district which contains an entire city must obtain 100 signatures on his nomination petition.*fn5

[ 462 Pa. Page 378]

In all the reports of cases decided from the date of that decision until this case, we have found not a single challenge to the validity of that holding. This too is the view adopted by the Commonwealth agency entrusted with supervision of the electoral process.*fn6 Indeed, the fact appellant used the petition form with spaces for 112 names and gathered 106 signatures suggests that even he understood that at least 100 signatures were required. It was only when it was determined that he had fewer than 100 valid signatures that he contended only 10 were required.

II.

Appellant argues that the construction of the statute which we have adopted violates the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment of the United States Constitution because it impermissibly discriminates between candidates for school director running in districts containing "an entire city" and those running in districts that do not. We cannot agree.

We have previously held that differing requirements for a position on the ballot will withstand an equal

[ 462 Pa. Page 379]

    protection challenge if the difference is rationally related to a difference in the nature of the constituencies served by the offices sought. Shankey v. Staisey, supra, at 72, 257 A.2d at 900.*fn7

In the present case, the legislative classification rests on the General Assembly's recognition that cities generally have larger and denser populations than do townships and boroughs. And while it is not invariably true that school districts containing cities are more populous than those that do not, the Legislature, could reasonably have concluded that, due to the demographic characteristics of cities, 100 signatures were reasonable and necessary to avoid cluttered ballots in school districts containing cities. The Legislature could also have concluded that in the less densely populated districts without cities, the objective of assuring manageable ballots could be achieved without requiring 100 signatures. It is not for the courts to pass on the wisdom of this reasoning. Our sole task is to conclude whether the classification is rational and therefore meets the standards of the equal

[ 462 Pa. Page 380]

    protection clause. Failing to find the constitutional deficiency which appellant asserts, the statute must be upheld and the order below affirmed.*fn8

Order affirmed.

MANDERINO, Justice (dissenting).

I dissent. While undoubtedly true, as the majority opinion points out, that the state has a legitimate interest in regulating the number of names appearing on the ballot and in assuring that those who appear enjoy a "significant modicum" of support, Jenness v. Fortson, 403 U.S. 431, 442, 91 S.Ct. 1970, 1976, 29 L.Ed.2d 554, 562 (1971), "[t]he Election Code must be liberally construed so as not to deprive an individual of his right to run for office, or the voters of their right to elect a candidate of their choice." Nomination Petition of Ross, 411 Pa. 45, 48, 190 A.2d 719, 720 (1963). My reading of the statute as a whole compels the conclusion that the number of signatures required for a position on the ballot for the office of School Director is controlled by subsection (f) of Section 912 of the Election Code. If subsections (d) and (f) are read in the context of the entire section, it is clear that subsection (d) was not meant to include an office to be voted for by the electors of an entire school district.

[ 462 Pa. Page 381]

The drafting scheme of the entire section is clear. It first covers an office to be filled "by a vote of the electors of the state at large, . . . ." It then refers to offices to be filled by electors of a senatorial district. Later, it speaks of an office to be voted for by the electors of an entire county, and then makes reference to an office to be elected by the electors of an entire city. In those cases where offices customarily may cover more than one municipality, or portions of municipalities, the section makes specific reference by naming the office. This is done in the case of a Representative in Congress, delegate or alternate delegate to a National party convention, State senator, Representative in the General Assembly, and member of a State committee. These are offices which may include portions of various municipalities within the area they cover, or which may include within their area all of a single municipality. Unlike these specifically named offices, the office of School Director is not mentioned in this section. When read in this context, the phrase "an office to be voted for by the electors of an entire city . . ." refers to offices of that city only, and not to offices to be voted for by the electors of an entire school district. Strictly speaking, a school director is elected by the voters of an entire school district, not those of a county or of a city. It may be that by geographical accident the area covered by the school district could be coterminous with the area of a certain city or county, but it is still the electors of the school district, not those of the city or county, who vote for its directors.

In Section 912, three different descriptions are used when referring to electors. The section sometimes refers to electors of an entire city, it sometimes refers to electors of an entire county, and it sometimes refers to electors of the state. In the context of the entire section, it is clear that the same elector is described in three different ways indicating that three different meanings were

[ 462 Pa. Page 382]

    intended depending upon whether the nomination petition is for a city office, a county office, or a state office. Thus, the legislature was clearly not referring only to the residency of the electors, but was referring to the kind of office -- a city office -- to be voted for by the electors when it used the phrase, "electors of an entire city."

The scheme of the section is not necessarily one which increases the number of signatures required on a nominating petition as the geographical area or population increases. Subsection (c), for instance, requires 200 signatures for a representative in Congress, and the same number of signatures for a State Senator, even though a congressional district is greater in population, and in some situations larger in area, than a senatorial district. Subsection (d) requires 100 signatures for an office to be voted for by the electors of an entire county and the same number of signatures for an office to be voted for by the electors of an entire city. In all situations in Pennsylvania, except Philadelphia, an entire county is larger both in geographical area and in population than an entire city located in that county. Yet, 100 signatures are required in both cases. I am therefore unable to perceive any scheme in the section establishing a direct ratio between required signatures and either geographical area or population.

The legislature has expressly recognized the existence of the office of school director in at least one other section of the Election Code. The legislature has provided that the board of elections of each county shall ascertain the various public offices to be filled "in said county and in the cities, boroughs, towns, townships, wards, school districts, poor districts and election districts thereof . . . ." (Emphasis added.) 25 P.S. 2863. Had the legislature intended that the number of signatures needed on a petition for the office of School Director -- an office whose geographical area often encompasses portions of more than one municipality -- be controlled by

[ 462 Pa. Page 383]

    subsection (d), it could easily have specified in subsection (d) that such a requirement applies to the office of School Director. Since none of the subsections refer to the office of School Director, that office falls to the catch-all provisions of subsection (f).

To interpret as the majority does means that, in some school districts, only ten signatures are required by subsection (f), but in other school districts, one hundred signatures are required by subsection (d). Had the legislature intended that a different number of signatures be required on nominating petitions for the offices of School Director of various districts depending upon whether the school district included an entire city within its geographical area, it could have so specified. In the absence of such an express requirement, I am unable to so interpret the Act. To do so unduly restricts access to the ballot of one seeking the office of School Director, and is therefore contrary to the philosophy expressed in Nomination Petition of Ross, 411 Pa. 45, 190 A.2d 719 (1963).


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